Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
In the aftermath of an internal review of police contacts with a 7-year-old girl who the Attorney General’s Office says was sex-trafficked by her close relatives, both the mayor and the police chief have suggested increasing communication between law enforcement and child welfare agencies.
But when two APD officers and two detectives with APD’s Crimes Against Children Unit looked into an allegation that the little girl had blood on her underwear in mid-November of last year, someone from APD did access the CYFD law enforcement portal, according to CYFD spokesman Henry Varela.
That means APD was likely aware of the family’s lengthy history with the Children, Youth and Families Department when law enforcement officers met with a teacher at the girl’s school and she produced the bloodstained undergarment while expressing her concerns.
Lapel video also shows a CYFD investigator who met officer Homero Alvidrez at the school acknowledged that he had been called numerous times about the family.
Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, has not responded to questions about the case, including whether law enforcement officers should have done anything differently, given that it appears they were aware of the family’s referrals to CYFD.
Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier said earlier that the officers followed procedures and were correct not to collect the underwear because no crime had been disclosed.
Gallegos did email a statement Friday that said: “APD is continuing to review the interactions with the family. We are also conducting a thorough evaluation of policies and directives used by field officers, the Crimes Against Children Unit and the Real Time Crime Center. Since this incident occurred during the prior administration, we are also scrutinizing policy changes made in response to a task force convened in 2014.”
Earlier this month, Mayor Tim Keller suggested ideas for a “proactive approach to child safety,” which includes “use Real Time Crime Center data to identify individuals who have repeat interactions with various law enforcement and child welfare agencies.”
But last May, the then-director of the Real Time Crime Center already was directing his staff to look at a child’s contacts with CYFD whenever possible. On May 16, 2017, T.J. Wilham sent out a procedural order laying out the center’s access to the CYFD’s law enforcement portal.
According to the interoffice memorandum on the order, operators should use the portal in all cases in which a juvenile has been injured or neglected, there is a history of violence and “all cases where a juvenile call originated from a school.”
Wilham is no longer with the city. APD has not answered any questions about that order or whether it was followed in this case.
In response to questions about whether police should have responded differently, given that they knew about prior CYFD contacts, Keller’s spokeswoman, Alicia Manzano, replied with a statement.
“We share the concerns of the community and just like you, we continue to pursue answers about this disturbing case of child abuse and exploitation,” she wrote. “Our review is ongoing and we will continue to update the public. However we must ensure that the integrity of the Stewart case isn’t jeopardized so the (people) who allegedly did this to (the) child are brought to justice.”
In early May, the girl’s close relatives – James Stewart and his wife, Teri Sanchez, both 37 – were arrested by special agents with the Attorney General’s Office who say Stewart forced her to touch his friends. Stewart is charged with human trafficking, promotion of prostitution, and other crimes, and Sanchez is charged with child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The November incident with the underwear came to light after a teacher testified in court that she reported her concerns about the girl’s well-being after finding the blood on the underwear when she was helping her change into clean clothes. She kept the underwear for officers, but an APD officer said he could not use the girl’s bloodstained underwear as evidence and threw it into a dumpster.
Geier has defended the officer’s actions but said that maybe if he had known about the family’s long history with CYFD, he would have changed his mindset and been a little more “in tune.”
Gallegos did not respond to follow-up questions about this remark.
At the time of the investigation on Nov. 15, 2017, there already had been 22 referrals to the department about the girl and her siblings, according to court documents. The Nov. 17 call was also the third call in two weeks.
On Nov. 1, 2017, CYFD was called for educational neglect and inadequate clothing for the girl and her brother, and on Nov. 9 it was called for other neglect and physical neglect of the girl.
It is unclear whether officer Alvidrez knew how many referrals CYFD had received about Sanchez, Stewart and the girl and her two brothers. But a CYFD investigator was at the school as well.
Police say Alvidrez called a Crimes Against Children Unit detective about what to do with the underwear. After that call, the officer did not tag it into evidence, and the teacher testified he tossed it into a dumpster.
CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson has said the department’s internal investigation into its own history with the family found it missed key things. Four employees have been put on leave pending the completion of the investigation.
Although Geier has said he doesn’t believe his officers made any mistakes or missed anything, he said that there is room for improvement in the department and that he hopes more training on CYFD’s law enforcement portal will help officers have more information.
“We have to have a threat assessment where it rises to the level so that it’s not just a single contact and we walk away,” he said. “We’re going to look into it as a deeper dive of past experiences and past contacts.”
CYFD spokesman Varela said the portal was set up last year as part of Gov. Susana Martinez’s executive order after the December 2013 death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela.
In recent months, CYFD has held training sessions with APD officers about how they can access the portal themselves, instead of relying on operators at the Real Time Crime Center or the Crimes Against Children Unit.