ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For a moment, it seemed like good news.
Or bad news, depending on your perspective.
A week after my column featured the curious case of Joshua and Aimee Kuckartz, the Rio Rancho parents accused of child abuse for using a belt and a cold shower to discipline their troubled 6-year-old daughter, charges against both were dropped.
Just like that. Gone.
After 16 long months of waiting for their day in court to find out whether their family — including eight kids, three who are adopted special needs children — would be torn apart should one or both parents be sent to prison for that one awful night, the news must have seemed like a prayer answered.
At least it did to those who felt the state had overreached its authority and crossed the lines between abuse and discipline, intent and accident.
“I am all for having a system that watches over children, but this is a shining example of the system gone wrong,” said Shelly Crutcher Gruenig, one of the many of you who wrote letters and posts about the case. “The state and the system owe a huge apology here to the entire family for months of torturous treatment.”
To recap my Jan. 7 column, the couple’s 6-year-old adopted daughter had escalated out of control Sept. 11, 2011 — yes, that long ago. The girl had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, an aggressive, antisocial condition that’s tough for even the best parents to deal with.
According to a Rio Rancho police report, Joshua Kuckartz spanked her with a belt on the buttocks, though apparently the belt slipped and left a small U-shaped bruise on her lower back. When she continued to fight back, he then tried to place her in a cold shower to calm her down. The girl’s mother took hold of the girl and stepped into the shower with the child, who continued to struggle until she either wriggled free or was thrown and fractured her leg.
The parents took her to the emergency room, where a nurse called authorities.
Both parents were charged with third-degree child abuse in separate cases — Joshua Kuckartz for the belt, Aimee Kuckartz for the broken leg. Their cases have languished ever since — murder cases take less time to go to trial — until last week when the charges were dropped.
But, as it turns out, the Kuckartzes’ prayers haven’t been answered.
Things are about to get worse.
District Attorney Lemuel Martinez said he plans to take the cases before a Sandoval County grand jury within the next month to seek indictments on the Kuckartzes — again.
Why the bizarre and belated do-over? After trial dates have come and gone? After a family therapist and the state Children, Youth and Families Department have declared the Kuckartzes fit parents and the children safe? After 16 freaking months?
To save the court time, Martinez said.
“We want to try both cases together as opposed to separately,” he said, explaining that he expects the grand jury to indict the parents in a single case this time. “It’s judicial economy.”
Oh, and also to allow a jury of their peers to determine the measure of culpability for each parent for the entire incident, not just a portion of it, he said.
Martinez leaves out a few points.
A new indictment means all previous agreements are off. Initially, defense attorney Lisa Torraco and prosecutor Barbara Romo agreed to waive a jury trial for Joshua Kuckartz, opting instead to let a judge decide his fate — Aimee Kuckartz, whose accusations are more serious, was always set for a jury trial.
(Torraco, incidentally, is now a state senator; Romo is a former deputy district attorney from Santa Fe charged with drunken driving and unlawfully carrying a loaded .38 revolver on the passenger seat in 2009. She received a deferred sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to DWI; the gun charge was dropped.)
Why does the judge-versus-jury trial development matter? Because in an emotionally charged case like this, where everybody has an opinion — and boy, do you folks have opinions — a judge, theoretically, is more equipped to weigh guilt or innocence based on the law and not on feelings or personal positions on child-rearing.
It was also a judge, not a grand jury, who after a preliminary hearing found probable cause to charge the Kuckartzes with third-degree felonies rather than the first-degree felonies the prosecution had sought.
A grand jury, however, just might be inclined to indict both Kuckartzes on first-degree felony child abuse, which, if they were to be convicted, means a mandatory 18-year prison sentence.
That’s three times the sentence they would face if they were to run their daughter over with a car and kill her.
Certainly, some of you voiced disappointment in my previous column, saying cold showers and belts cross the line.
But let me emphasize again that, while I am no advocate for that sort of discipline, I appreciate what it’s like to struggle with a RAD kid — and if you don’t have one, I’m convinced you don’t know. Conventional methods like timeouts and chores don’t always work.
Here, context — how a family functions as a whole, how a child is cared for as a whole — must be considered, not just one terrible moment.
“I have never seen signs of abuse or neglect,” wrote Maureen Anders Camden, who describes herself as a longtime neighbor of the Kuckartz family. “The children are outgoing, happy individuals.”
Instead of holding the threat of prison over the parents’ heads, it would have been better to hold their hands, provide them support and skills to deal with a child whose problems are far greater than most.
That, it appears, happened long ago through CYFD and family therapy.
And yet this legal case lingers on, leaving eight children, all under age 13, to fear that Mommy and Daddy might one day be taken away for something none of them can remember. That is the real child abuse here. That is prosecutorial vindictiveness.
There are plenty of real criminals, real abusers in Sandoval County. Perhaps Martinez and Romo should quit wasting the court’s time and go after them.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal