Suit alleges CYFD inaction led to boy's death - Albuquerque Journal

Suit alleges CYFD inaction led to boy’s death

James Dunklee Cruz, 4, was beaten to death in 2019. (Courtesy of Rachel Berenson)

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In the weeks before he was beaten to death, 4-year-old James Dunklee Cruz told a state Children, Youth and Families Department worker that he had been physically and sexually abused by his mother’s roommate.

But CYFD failed to remove the child from his mother’s home in violation of his constitutional rights, attorneys allege in a federal lawsuit filed this week against the agency.

His mother’s roommate, Zerrick Marquez, 28, pleaded guilty in May to intentional child abuse resulting in the boy’s death on Dec. 10, 2019. He faces a sentence of life in prison at a hearing scheduled next week.

In an October 2019 interview with a CYFD employee, James repeatedly identified Marquez as his abuser, said Sara Crecca, an Albuquerque attorney who filed the lawsuit.

James also told the interviewer that he was being abused by his mother, Krista Cruz, and another woman who lived in the home. Medical personnel documented extensive physical evidence of the boy’s abuse in the weeks before his death.

James “named his mother as abusing him, and in graphic detail,” Crecca said. CYFD “knew all that, and they knew other times about abuse, and they sent him right back to the wolves.”

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court of New Mexico, Albuquerque division, alleges that CYFD had an obligation under state law and the U.S. Constitution to act through Children’s Court to remove James from his mother’s home and place him in a safe environment.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of James’ estate, seeks unspecified damages and changes in policies and procedures at CYFD intended to prevent the failures alleged in the suit.

CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said the agency “remains committed to continuously improving New Mexico’s child welfare system and making New Mexico safer for children.”

CYFD doesn’t comment on pending litigation but “is confident in its defense,” Moore-Pabst said.

“This young boy’s death, as any child’s death, is a tragedy,” he said. “The man responsible for his death has pleaded guilty to abuse resulting in the death of this innocent child.”

Two months before he was beaten to death, James Dunklee Cruz was taken to an urgent care with a shoulder and other injuries. This photo, taken from a police lapel camera video, was obtained by attorneys suing the state Children, Youth and Families Department for wrongful death. (Source: Sara Crecca)

The federal lawsuit contains many of the same allegations made in a 2021 lawsuit filed against CYFD in 2nd Judicial District Court on behalf of the boy’s estate. That suit, which remains pending, alleges that CYFD violated state law by failing to remove James from his mother’s home despite numerous abuse allegations.

Krista Cruz, 25, was charged in 2021 with reckless child abuse resulting in her son’s death. A trial has not been scheduled in that case.

Cruz could not be reached for comment Friday. A message left with her attorney, Edward Bustamante, was not immediately returned.

Krista Cruz was well known to CYFD. She spent ages 11 through 18 in the agency’s custody. Cruz lost custody of her first-born son in 2014 after the boy’s paternal family filed a civil action alleging she was an unfit parent.

James told investigators during a safehouse interview in October 2019 that several perpetrators – including his mother and Marquez – were responsible for his injuries, the federal suit alleges.

James also said that his mother and Marquez had abused him repeatedly, including burning him with hot water, the suit said. Another of his mother’s roommates had abused him with a shoe and a brush, leaving visible bruises on his back, it said.

“Despite this having been the 13th referral for abuse or neglect over James’ lifetime, the fifth referral in just over a month,” CYFD failed to remove James from the home and instead placed him in a five-day respite, the suit alleges.

CYFD had a legal and constitutional responsibility to initiate formal legal custody of the boy and place him in a safe home, it said.

But CYFD supervisors determined that James could safely reside with his mother, who violated conditions of a safety plan within 24 hours of regaining custody of the boy, the suit contends.

A CYFD supervisor directed a subordinate to find James for the purpose of initiating formal legal custody of the boy, it said.

“No one at CYFD ever saw James again,” the suit said.

“James suffered emotional neglect, psychological abuse, malnourishment, sexual abuse, overwhelming physical abuse and torture and died as a direct result of CYFD’s nine failed investigations,” the suit said.

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