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Bills aim to close child abuse loopholes

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Two high-profile cases of child abuse that have shaken northern New Mexico have inspired bills in this year’s legislative session.

Reps. Linda Trujillo and Andrea Romero, both Santa Fe Democrats, introduced House Bill 447, which would give each public school student a unique identification number, and direct the state Public Education and Children, Youth and Families departments to create a system to track students who move between school districts.

And Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, is sponsoring House Bill 488, which closes a loophole in New Mexico’s child abuse reporting law. The existing act doesn’t require school administrators, teachers and other school personnel to report to law enforcement any confirmed or suspected child abuse by teachers or others at a school.

 Jeremiah Valencia

Jeremiah Valencia

Thirteen-year-old Jeremiah Valencia was not enrolled in a public school district when he was  killed in November 2017, allegedly by household member Jordan Nunez, 20, after months of beatings and other physical abuse at a Nambé home. Jeremiah’s mother, Tracy Ann Pena, had pulled Jeremiah and his sister from West Las Vegas Schools in February of that year.

Pena, who pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse resulting in death for Jeremiah’s murder, started paperwork with Santa Fe Public Schools to transfer Jeremiah and his sister to Capshaw Middle School, but they never attended classes there.

Since Jeremiah had fallen off the radar of the education system, there was no alert or check made when he never returned to any school for the spring and fall semesters of 2017.

His buried body was found about two months after he was killed, in January 2018, after Pena – incarcerated on unrelated charges – talked about the boy’s death with a fellow inmate at the Santa Fe County jail.

“This (bill) is a response to the really devastating death of Jeremiah Valencia,” Trujillo told the Journal. “There really wasn’t anybody making sure he was in school. There wasn’t anybody looking for absences.”

Trujillo’s bill, which passed the House unanimously and still must get through the Senate, assigns each student a unique identification number that must be on “all forms, student records, transcripts and databases in which a student is identified by name” so the student can be tracked while moving between school districts or services of the Children, Youth and Families Department.

The bill also calls for the Public Education Department and CYFD secretaries to create a task force – comprising public school personnel, CYFD social workers, juvenile probation and parole personnel, and children’s court judges – to develop a tracking system that can be used by school districts, PED and CYFD. The task force must report its suggestions to the Legislative Education Study Committee by Dec. 1.

“I feel confident that the task force will be able to come up with the solution,” Trujillo said.

Martinez’s bill, which is similar to one introduced last year by now-Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, amends the definition of “abused child” to include “abuse committed by a person who is not the child’s parent, guardian or custodian.”

“Every person,” teachers and school officials, medical personnel or members of the clergy, who knows of or has “a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect “shall report” the matter to law enforcement or CYFD.

Under current New Mexico law, abuse has to be reported only to CYFD or police if it’s allegedly being committed by a parent or guardian. Martinez’s bill, as of late last week, had passed through one House committee and was headed to another.

Attorney General Hector Balderas has been asking for this kind of legislation since his office filed charges against former Santa Fe and Española teacher Gary Gregor in 2017.

Gregor was convicted in December on several felonies for sexually abusing fourth-grade girls he was teaching at Española, and is awaiting trial for more crimes against students there and in Santa Fe. Despite complaints against him, Gregor was never reported to police or CYFD by school personnel at either district.

Several years ago, a federal judge dropped the Santa Fe school district from a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by parents of Gregor’s alleged victims. The judge cited the still-existing child abuse statute that does not require reporting abuse to law enforcement if the abuse was being committed by a teacher.

“That’s an example of where the current law didn’t work the way it should have,” Martinez told the Journal.

Balderas credits an outspoken victim of Gregor from Española, Nallely Hernandez, for getting the bill drafted. Hernandez testified at the trial in which Gregor was convicted.

“This bill is a result of the bravery and perseverance of Nallely Hernandez, and I am grateful that Representative Martinez will fight with me to protect further New Mexican children from physical and sexual abuse,” Balderas said in a statement.

“We urge New Mexico lawmakers to join with our office and Rep. Javier Martinez in fighting to protect New Mexican children from abuse, regardless of who commits it.”

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