ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chloe Salazar’s head rolls listlessly back against her floral sheets as a Disney show plays on a TV above her bed.
She can’t see or hear it. The 13-year-old is blind, deaf, can’t feed herself or talk and needs to be on oxygen. She is on hospice for the third time in her short life.
Salazar suffered a traumatic brain injury at 4 months old when she was shaken by her birth mother’s boyfriend.
“That man that shook her got five years and my daughter got a death sentence,” said Salazar’s mother, Cathy, who adopted her at 2½ years old.
Statistics show New Mexico has one of the highest rates in the country of children dying from abuse or neglect.
In 2010, New Mexico ranked second in the nation for per capita deaths caused by child abuse, with 19 deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It was eighth in 2011, the most recent year available, with 15.
And the trend appears to be continuing.
■ In January, police charged a 21-year-old Albuquerque woman in the death of her infant daughter. Doctors said the girl had been “hit repeatedly with a hammer-like object” in her head, according to a criminal complaint. June Ortega was charged with child abuse resulting in death.
■ In February, Grant County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Nicholas Grijalva, 30, of Mimbres in the beating death of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter. Trauma doctors say the girl had various stages of bruising on her body that were not consistent with a fall, as the injury was first reported.
■ Last month, a 4-month-old boy died of blunt force injuries to his head, allegedly at the hands of his 20-year-old father, Luc Westfall of Albuquerque. The boy’s father told Albuquerque police he found the boy limp and not breathing after he put the child in his crib to sleep. He has been charged with child abuse resulting in death.
■ And just this week, an 18-year-old Albuquerque mother was charged with child abuse in the death of her 11-month-old son, who suffered two skull fractures, four broken ribs, a broken arm and other injuries.
The child abuse comes in different forms — it isn’t always physical abuse, but can cause serious injury just the same. Earlier this month in Albuquerque, a 2-year-old swallowed methadone and was hospitalized with the probability of permanent brain damage. The child’s parents were charged with child abuse after telling police they used the narcotic and left it within his reach.
Abuse risk factors
In fiscal year 2012, New Mexico had 7,180 substantiated victims of child abuse or neglect, with nearly 39 percent of the victims under the age of 5. That was a slight increase from 6,958 substantiated victims in fiscal year 2011, according to the Children, Youth and Families Department.
CYFD Secretary Yolanda Berumen-Deines said the increase may be attributed to her agency’s push for people to report child abuse by calling #SAFE from a cellphone, which began in 2011.
In addition to the human tragedy of each child’ suffering, there is a financial toll as well.
New Mexico Voices for Children calculated the cost of abuse per victim at $210,000, which includes health care, productivity losses, child welfare, criminal justice and special education.
Susan Miller is a psychologist at UNM’s Carrie Tingley Pediatric Rehabilitation Hospital and has seen all too often the tragedy of child abuse in this state.
She founded the New Mexico Child Abuse Prevention Partnership, an advocacy group composed of 210 members who encounter child abuse in professions ranging from medicine, psychology, social work and law enforcement.
Miller said certain risk factors make child abuse more likely, including children who have special needs, children under 4, having a non-biological, transient caregiver in the home, violence and social isolation.
Family and parent characteristics can also play a role, such as: Families with substance abuse and mental health issues, a parent who lacks understanding of child development, parents who are young, parents with low education or low income, or a parent who was abused.
“The parents, if they’ve been abused themselves, the likelihood goes up astronomically that the parent will abuse and then the child will go on abusing,” Miller said. “There’s a great connection there.”
Unfortunately, New Mexico has a high rate of many of those factors, including poverty, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and cycle of abuse.
The coalition was formed to find ways to prevent child abuse through education, parenting classes, research and advocating public policy changes.
“Child abuse is 100 percent preventable,” Miller said. “It’s not a disease. It is something people choose to do to a child.”
The group is planning a public service campaign to promote public awareness and services available to parents.
Berumen-Deines said she supports organizations like the child abuse partnership because it focuses on prevention while CYFD’s mandate is to intervene in cases where child abuse is alleged. CYFD funds programs for home visiting, infant mental health, and early childhood education, which are forms of prevention, but much of the department’s resources go toward intervention, she said.
“Monies are much easier to come by when you’re talking about intervention because then you’re able to track outcomes,” Berumen-Deines said. “It’s easier to show what works and what doesn’t work. It’s really hard to get funding directed into prevention. How do you prove you stopped something from happening when it never happened to begin with?”
Miller said her group also seeks grants and public funding for services such as nurse case managers, who visit parents in the home to improve parenting skills.
Miller said home visiting programs — where experts visit new parents and work with them on parenting skills — can be a key to preventing child abuse or neglect.
“Studies show if we can get people in the home, helping Mom and Dad with the child, they have a greater likelihood of not abusing the child,” she said.
Chloe’s life since
Cathy Salazar said her daughter’s injuries were “100 percent preventable.”
“There is absolutely no reason that what happened to her should have happened, but it did because there was an inexperienced caregiver with no coping skills for when a baby’s crying,” she said.
The Salazars took in Chloe as a foster child when she was about 1 year old. They adopted her about a year-and-a-half later. Now they have a total of nine children: three biological children and six they’ve adopted who were either exposed to drugs as babies or considered medically fragile.
In the early years, they tried different kinds of therapies to retrain what was left of Chloe’s brain, but despite those efforts, it continues to deteriorate, Cathy Salazar said. She came down with a severe viral infection in her lungs right before Christmas and had to be hospitalized. She’s been on hospice since.
In Chloe’s first-floor bedroom in the Salazar home, a teddy bear perches on the penguin blanket on her bed. She’s hooked up to a monitor that provides her with food and water through tubes. Two tanks provide her with a constant stream of oxygen.
A nurse is with her eight hours a day, six days a week. She gives her medication, changes her diaper, gives her a bath, brushes her long brown hair and gets her in a wheelchair for a 40 minute at-home session with a teacher from Albuquerque Public Schools.
“I’ll always say this. I would rather not know her, and her be a very healthy teenager somewhere else,” Cathy Salazar said. “I would love her that much for that wish to happen.”
The University of New Mexico’s Child Abuse Prevention Partnership is hosting its first Precious Gems Gala on April 20, 5:30-10:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Downtown Albuquerque.
Tickets are $100 per person, or a table of 10 for $1,000. Proceeds will go to NM-CAPP, a group working to end child abuse in the state.