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Call to action spurred by spate of child deaths

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Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, speaks at a Thursday news conference, calling on all New Mexicans to be vigilant and report suspected child abuse or neglect. Home visiting, he said, is the antidote to combat tragedies like the recent spate of violence against children. (Roberto E. Rosales/AlbuquerqueJournal)

In response to a recent spate of violent deaths and injuries of children in New Mexico, child advocates and representatives of nonprofits on Thursday gathered to call for vigilance and action in intervening to prevent such tragedies.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and these tragedies have heightened the sense of urgency “to make our state a safe place for our children, said Allen Sánchez, president of CHI (Catholic Health Initiatives) St. Joseph’s Children.

Everyone, whether they have children or not, has a responsibility to watch out for kids, and if they see or suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, to report it and make sure children and families know about the abundance of programs already in place to help them, Sánchez said.

CHI focuses on the health of children and families and providing services and referrals. It is the state’s largest provider of home visiting services, with workers conducting about 750 visits each week.

“When we hear about these tragedies we often feel sad, depressed or powerless, but there is something we can do,” Sánchez said. “We can be vigilant and act on what we see. Encourage friends,families and neighbors to take advantage of programs and resources,” he said.

Home visiting workers go wherever the families are. If a family is homeless, they can meet in a CHI office or in a coffee shop. The home visiting workers make the families understand that “home visiting is not punitive and it’s not about inspecting or judging,” Sánchez said. “It’s about a relationship and journey with somebody and presenting them with evidence-based best practices.”

Ideally, home visiting begins at the prenatal stage and continues for the first three years of a child’s life. “That makes a difference, that changes everything,” he said. When families participate in a home visiting program and are introduced to a curriculum of health, well being, and school readiness, “we do not see the tragedies occur,” Sánchez said. “This is the antidote.”

And the antidote can’t come too soon.

On March 31, a Farmington man allegedly killed his 5-year-old son by smothering him with a pillow; On April 5, police say a 5-year-old girl was beaten to death by her father in a southeast Albuquerque apartment; on April 7, an 8-year-old girl was shot and critically injured in a northeast Albuquerque home; and on April 9, a man was arrested in connection with the suspicious death of his 11-month old daughter at a Northeast Heights motel.

The state Children, Youth and Families Department “can not, nor should they be expected to, combat child abuse and neglect alone,” said Jennifer Duran-Sallee, director of the Early Childhood Center of Excellence at Santa Fe Community College. “This is a community problem and it requires community solutions to support and strengthen families, including those with our very youngest children.”

Duran-Sallee said she was encouraged that the state Legislature invested about $112 million in pre-natal to third grade programs and that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has created the cabinet level Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

“We are the solution, we can reduce child deaths, child abuse and neglect,” said Duran-Sallee. “My message to everyone is invest in prevention, invest in community, invest in families and invest in New Mexico.”

Debra Baca, vice president of Youth Development Incorporated, noted that there are Head Start programs in every county in New Mexico, “and they’re free to eligible families and provide the most comprehensive services in early childhood.”

YDI, a youth service organization that partners with families to help them solve problems, operates Head Start programs.

“It’s not just about early childhood education,” Baca said. “It’s about family development. You can not work with young children without full participation from the families.”

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