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In the years leading up to her 16-year-old daughter’s death – believed to be from a lack of medical care and malnourishment – Doraelia Espinoza was investigated seven times by the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, according to recently released reports.
Three cases dating back to 2016 – involving allegations of inadequate hygiene and clothing, educational neglect and inadequate shelter – were substantiated.
However, the agency was not investigating Espinoza at the time of the teenager’s death and the most recent allegations of inadequate clothing and medical neglect in June 2020 were not substantiated, according to incident reports from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. It is unclear if the allegations are regarding the 16-year-old – identified in court documents as ME – or Espinoza’s other four children, since the names of juveniles are redacted from the reports.
There were no allegations of physical abuse.
The incident reports released to the Journal in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request shed more light on the circumstances the family was living in and their history with state investigators.
Following ME’s death, detectives reported visiting the family’s South Valley home, which they said was littered with trash, feces and food. The detectives’s interviews with Espinoza suggest she had stopped caring for her severely disabled oldest daughter and instead tasked the girl’s younger sister with her care.
Espinoza, 32, was arrested and charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death after she brought ME, unresponsive, to the University of New Mexico Hospital on May 3.
The girl, who was blind and nonverbal, was in full cardiac arrest, according to detectives. The detectives say ME appeared to be very small for her age, was very skinny and had no fat or muscle. She also had maggots in her body that investigators said had been there for at least four days, suggesting she had been dead for some time.
Prosecutors have asked for Espinoza to be held pending trial and a hearing on that motion is set for July.
Her attorney, Raymond Maestas, said CYFD has a duty to help protect families in need and it is becoming more and more clear that the agency failed his client and her family.
“This is not an evil, cruel mother,” Maestas wrote in an email. “Doraelia has a fifth grade education and was a young teen mom. Doraelia and more importantly her young disabled, high needs daughter deserved better from CYFD.”
A CYFD spokesman would not answer any questions about the previous cases, citing a state law that mandates confidentiality.
However, he did provide a Child Fatality Notification that stated the department is investigating ME’s death and can provide summary information once that process is complete.
On the morning of May 3, a nurse called deputies after Espinoza brought ME to the emergency room. The nurse reported that Espinoza had arrived carrying her daughter in her arms and said she had not been acting right.
The girl was in a full cardiac arrest when she arrived at the hospital and although Espinoza said her daughter was alive that morning, investigators believed she had been dead for a while. Espinoza and her boyfriend – who had driven them to UNMH – left the hospital before deputies got there. Homicide detectives headed to the family’s apartment near Atrisco, south of Central. Espinoza’s other four children were then put into the custody of CYFD and taken in for forensic interviews.
According to the reports, the home was littered with spilled food, feces and trash. The fridge and freezer smelled of rotten food and the deputies described their shoes sticking to the floor and fighting the urge to vomit. The bed where ME had slept was “comparable to a toddler bed” and appeared to have feces, black hair, urine and blood on the blanket.
CYFD closed case
Meanwhile, Espinoza and her boyfriend were taken to BCSO headquarters where detectives interviewed them in Spanish.
Espinoza told detectives she had given birth to ME when she was about 16 and the girl had cognitive and physical disabilities from the start, according to the reports. She said when ME’s father learned of her impairments he wanted nothing to do with her. Espinoza said as the girl got older she didn’t develop normally, was small for her age, would communicate through screaming and hand gestures and would walk with a cane and wear a diaper.
“Doraelia further explained that (redacted) had attended a school in Alamogordo New Mexico, where they attempted to teach and show her how to use the restroom but were unsuccessful,” the detective wrote in a report. “Doraelia said (redacted) was sent home prior to the Covid-19 pandemic due to being too difficult to care for. (Redacted) remained at her residence and never returned to Alamogordo.”
Espinoza said her daughter was attending school online during the pandemic so she wouldn’t get sick.
The detectives contacted Albuquerque Public Schools police and was told that ME was registered at West Mesa High School, although she had more than 40 absences for the 2021-2022 school year. In a school photograph from 2017 “she appeared happy and significantly healthier.”
The family’s history with CYFD dates back to 2015, although an allegation that Espinoza wasn’t supervising her children was not substantiated that year.
In 2016 and 2017, CYFD investigators found that Espinoza’s children had inadequate hygiene and clothing and their education was neglected, according to the BCSO report. In 2019 they found the children had inadequate shelter.
In October 2019, a CYFD investigator had a face-to-face meeting with ME and said “she was wearing appropriate clothing and appeared clean” although she had missed appointments, according to the report. Espinoza blamed her then-husband for missing the appointments and after the meeting she complied with the investigator’s request to follow up on medical care and the case was closed.
Later that month, Espinoza was charged with petty misdemeanor battery and fired from her job at a La Quinta Inn & Suites after police say she punched another employee for making “a statement” about the child she’d brought with her to work. It’s unclear if the child who was involved was ME. That case is pending.
During her interview with detectives following her daughter’s death, Espinoza initially said she cared for ME and would change her diapers six times a day. She said the girl had eaten “sopa” (soup) the day before her death and she “would stay laying in her bed and liked listening to music.”
She said she had heard her daughter moaning that morning and tried to help her take a shower before she got worried and took her to the hospital.
After Espinoza “began to cry and said she wasn’t in the right state of mind,” the interview was paused so she could take a break. Then deputies said she recanted her statements and said she hadn’t changed ME or seen, cared for or fed her in a week.
When he was interviewed, Espinoza’s boyfriend of about four months told detectives he had a good relationship with her other children, but had only seen ME twice and knew that she was “malita” (sickly) and a “niña mala” (sick child). Espinoza’s ex-husband – and the father of her 3-year-old – said he would pick up his son every other weekend but never go inside the home, so he didn’t know of its conditions.
Although the Office of the Medical Investigator had not yet determined ME’s cause of death at the time the reports were written, a detective said that based on the girl’s physical condition “it was apparent that lack of medical care, inadequate supervision and care, a filthy living environment, and maltreatment were contributing factors.”
“Doraelia failed to ensure (redacted) was safe and left her in the care of her juvenile sister,” the detective wrote in the report. “She also admitted that (redacted) was her responsibility, nobody else’s. Doraelia admitted that (redacted) had lost weight since the last time she had checked or seen her. Doraelia also gave conflicting statements about her activity throughout the week, but admitted to being at the residence every day and never checking on her.”