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Still hoping for a happy ending

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The trophy still sits on my cluttered desk as it has since 2012 when a grateful mother presented it to me during a party to thank those of us who had helped bring her two young daughters home to what we all hoped was the happy ending to a shocking story.

The plaque on the trophy reads: Champion of Persistence and Determination.

But my role was to write about the real champions who came together to rescue those little girls from the horrors of parental abduction, a Mexican orphanage and the tangled mess of an international custody battle.

Today, I get to write about a few more champions.

In last Tuesday’s Journal, my colleague Elise Kaplan introduced you to three Albuquerque police officers honored with the True Blue Award from the Daniels Fund charitable foundation for going above and beyond the call of duty. One of the recipients was officer Mike Werner, a 20-year veteran of the force who became champion, hero and Cop Dad to a teen in distress.

That teen happens to be the oldest of the two little girls I met in 2012.

But the teen’s story as told by a speaker at Monday’s ceremony contained inaccuracies and conflated details. I knew that, because I had written her story.

The first time was in September 2010, two years after the girls, then 1 and 6, had been abducted to Cancún, Mexico, by their father, who had used a phony name and hidden his illegal immigration status from their mother, a U.S. citizen.

She had been granted full custody in the divorce, but that didn’t matter to Mexican officials. The girls were later removed from their father’s custody and placed in an orphanage, but they were not allowed to go home to their mother.

In October 2011, I wrote again about the girls, still held captive in the orphanage. This time, I chided former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson into using his diplomatic skills to bring the girls home.

Eventually, he did.

In February 2012, I wrote my third story about the girls, how they were dramatically rescued from Mexico after spending the last 3½ years in conditions no child should ever experience. They were 4 and 9 then, home and happy and safe in Albuquerque when I met them.

But the happiness didn’t last. Court records indicate that the trauma both girls suffered was causing severe behaviors.

Officer Mike Werner

Their mother said she followed the advice of her daughters’ treatment team and allowed them to be placed in group homes and treatment foster homes – at least 16 different placements between the two girls from 2012 to 2014.

The girls’ grandmother – a champion in her own right – stepped in then and became their legal guardian in 2015.

But the behaviors continued. The youngest girl, now 12, was eventually placed in a psychiatric facility out of state where she is doing well, her grandmother said.

But there seemed to be nothing available for the older granddaughter, who turned 17 this month.

“I tried everything,” the grandmother said. “I begged for help from everybody and no one listened.”

That’s when Werner stepped in.

He was the officer who responded to two callouts to the grandmother’s home in April, the second time requiring that the girl be removed from the home.

But when no beds were available, Werner used his resources and his compassion to find a temporary home for her.

And then he found a permanent place for her in his heart.

“For most of my career as a cop, I was a hard charger – ATF task force, drug busts, all that stuff,” he said. “I don’t know what happened, but I switched gears. In my last years of this career, I guess I’m going to be helping kids.”

He has learned a lot about that by answering calls once handled by social workers. He has also coached youth football for nine years and raised two kids of his own, including an 18-year-old son who lives with him in their self-proclaimed bachelor pad.

When he met the girl,  he could see she was bright, engaging, resilient and tough.

“There’s something special about her,” he said. “She went through more than any kid should ever have to go through.”

Werner found her a job at a friend’s flower shop. He became involved in her academic team. Today, he drives her to and from school and appointments when he can.

He also works closely with Children, Youth and Families Department social worker Sabrina Vigil – another champion, he says – to get her the support her grandmother tried for years to obtain for her.

“All the gears are finally working for her now,” he said.

He has also become Cop Dad, the girl’s nickname for him. That’s a role he said he expects to keep forever.

“No doubt I’ll be in her life until I leave this earth,” he said.

Seven years have passed since the girls came home from Mexico, and still we hope for a happy ending.

With more champions in her corner, we might be getting closer.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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