Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
First in a two-part series
Months before shocking allegations of child torture and starvation came to light in the town of Texico, New Mexico, child welfare officials removed a 2-week-old infant from two women now charged in the high-profile child abuse case.
The child’s mother, Andii White, 24, said she and her husband had taken refuge at the home of Jayme Kushman and her then-partner, Lora Melancon, beginning in 2019 when she was pregnant with her first child.
In gratitude, White says, they decided to give their third baby to Kushman.
But the plan unraveled two weeks after the Jan. 4 birth of the infant girl, who tested positive for methamphetamine.
An investigator from the state Children, Youth and Families Department showed up Jan. 18 at the rural property where Kushman had a reputation for offering help to the homeless.
Acting on a tip, CYFD and the Texico police chief wanted to know whether a newborn at the home may have been traded for a travel trailer, according to police lapel camera recently obtained by the Journal.
They found a trailer with no one inside and the 2-week-old infant at the Kushman home. But neither of the biological parents could be located, so a CYFD investigator took the baby into state custody on a 48-hour hold for abandonment.
The episode, which led to the baby being placed in state foster care, has attracted new scrutiny in the continuing criminal investigation into what happened to children living at the house on Curry Road in Texico.
Kushman, Melancon and Jaime Sena, another woman who moved into the home in March with her two small children, are awaiting trial on multiple child abuse charges filed after CYFD returned to the home July 22 on another referral alleging children were being abused.
That day, a CYFD supervisor and two State Police officers removed six children, ages 5 to 16, from the home after finding no running water, wooden paddles and chains attached to beds. They also conducted interviews with two of the children, who reported being chained to their beds and beaten, sometimes when they tried to take food from the kitchen, according to a criminal complaint.
There was also graphic video of abuse that occurred over several days in July discovered on Kushman’s cellphone, court records state. Law enforcement authorities allege the maltreatment had been going on for years.
For instance, Melancon’s indictment alleges she permitted a girl, then 5, to be confined inside a kennel on the porch at the home in winter in 2016. She is also charged with striking a boy, then 9 years old, with a chain in 2020 because he took crackers.
Kushman had obtained legal guardianship of three of the children removed, two of whom were her nieces. Two of the children were Sena’s, and a 16-year-old girl had been living at the home for several months.
A lawyer for Melancon declined to comment when reached by the Journal, and attorneys for Sena and Kushman didn’t return Journal phone calls. Sena and Kushman are being held in jail pending trial. Melancon was released on bail. All three women have pleaded not guilty.
White recently told the Journal she has been interviewed by a state investigator from Albuquerque. The investigator wanted to know about the baby intended for Kushman as well as White’s two other children, all of whom tested positive for methamphetamine exposure at birth.
The three children ended up in state custody in New Mexico and Oklahoma.
“With regard to our investigation into the infants, that investigation is ongoing and we have been coordinating with the Attorney General’s Office,” said 9th Judicial District Attorney Brian Stover in a phone interview. Stover declined to elaborate.
White told the Journal that Kushman was like a mother to her, and never offered or gave anything in exchange for their third child, who Melancon named Elaina Kushman.
White said there was no arrangement to give Kushman White’s other children.
“It was a beautiful world,” White said of her initial time with Kushman. “By the end of it, there was nothing left but an empty house that could be burned to the ground, really, for about how everybody cares about it now.”
White said she and her husband, Robert Teel, lived at the Kushman property off and on beginning in 2019 and never saw the child abuse alleged by authorities. While “mistakes” might have been made, she said Kushman isn’t the “monster” being portrayed.
“She was literally bred to be a mother; she had this undying need to nurture things, whether a baby duck or a child.”
White told the Journal she spent nearly seven years in state foster care and is still fighting drug addiction.
“Currently, I’m actively using. A lot of days I don’t know what to do with myself anymore.”
She was eight months pregnant with her first child in 2019 when Kushman first contacted her through social media offering to help. White said Kushman had a reputation in the Clovis area some 10 miles away as providing meals and clothing to people like her, living on the streets.
White said she and her husband stayed in a trailer while Kushman provided them with shelter and food.
After their first baby arrived, Kushman insisted on caring for the newborn inside the home when the couple was actively using drugs, White said.
That baby, too, was taken into custody by CYFD briefly, but was returned to White and her husband.
They moved on to Oklahoma where child welfare officials, acting on a tip, searched for the child and eventually took the baby away from her parents.
While living in Oklahoma, White delivered a second child, a boy. He and his older sister have since been adopted by an Oklahoma couple.
Meanwhile, White and her husband returned to Texico to stay with Kushman.
Kushman wasn’t employed and stayed home to take care of the children, White recalled.
White said they would “scrape by” financially, sometimes going to an eastern New Mexico food bank for groceries.
“I offered to conceive a child just specifically for her (Kushman). I really felt like she deserved a baby. She had helped me, had done so much for me, it was the least I could do.”
If not for CYFD’s intervention, the baby Elaina might never have left the Kushman home.
Court and police records show Melancon and Kushman brought the infant home from the hospital. They obtained power of attorney for the baby and put her on Medicaid.
But someone called CYFD to report that the baby’s welfare was at risk.
Lapel camera video from the Texico Police Department shows CYFD investigator Misti Valdez, accompanied by Texico Police Chief Doug Bowman, walking onto the Kushman property on Jan. 18 asking about the baby and her parents. Bowman had been at the home in the past, but it wasn’t clear from the video as to why.
“We got to check on this kiddo,” Bowman told Kushman and Melancon. “You know that, you know how it works, right?”
While Valdez searched the home, Melancon told the police chief, “We’ve had no calls for two years.”
“If you all are doing all right, I kind of stay away,” Bowman replied.
“Lora,” Bowman said at one point, “I gotta say I’m proud of your keeping this house clean for the most part, compared to what I’ve seen before. Good job.”
“We’re bustin’ our butt, six kids here and all,” Melancon said.
Valdez then asked to speak with Bowman and the video stops.
The video resumes when Kushman and Melancon learn that because they didn’t have legal custody of the infant and no one knew the whereabouts of the parents, CYFD was placing the child in state custody temporarily.
“This gives you an opportunity to get in the courts and get the documentation you need,” Bowman told the women. “I’m doing this to help you all right now, not to just take a baby.”
“I took the baby because I can’t have kids,” said Kushman, tears in her eyes. She told Bowman and the CYFD worker she didn’t know where Andii White was at the time.
Court records show that Kushman had been appointed kinship guardian for her two nieces in 2012. Four years later, she became the kinship guardian to a third child, a boy from Texas at the request of child welfare officials in that state.
They were among the children who stood quietly in Kushman’s living room as the infant was taken away, the video show.
“Kiddos, it’s OK, this isn’t a bad thing,” Bowman told them. “You know that, right? It’s going to be all right.”
Fight for custody
Meanwhile, Virginia and Matthew Harrington, the Oklahoma couple who adopted White’s two older children, had heard about baby Elaina and traveled to Clovis to try to find her in January.
“We went down there thinking we were going to get guardianship of a child to ensure safety, that she was not living on the streets with her homeless, addictive parents,” Virginia Harrington said.
They learned CYFD had removed the baby Jan. 18 and filed for kinship guardianship that same day, court records show.
But Melancon filed her own request for guardianship that same afternoon, stating in court records that she had been “caregiver of the child since she was born.”
“Before Elaina was born, Andii knew she couldn’t care for her,” Melancon’s petition states. “She asked if my partner and I would care for her.” The guardianship petition also states that CYFD “took child due to parents not being there. Allegations of a trailer being traded for the baby – which is not true.”
District Court Judge David P. Reeb of Clovis granted Melancon guardianship because she had the parents’ consent, the petition shows.
But CYFD still retained custody of the child and filed a motion, which isn’t public, to dissolve the guardianship, court records show.
Ultimately, a different state district judge, Benjamin S. Cross, formally revoked Melancon’s guardianship, writing in a May 11 order that “it was null and void at the time it was entered. CYFD had custody of the child and currently has custody. …”
“Due to CYFD’s custody, parental consent was invalid,” the order states. “Additionally, this Court finds that the guardianship is contrary to the best interests of the Child.”
The order references a separate abuse and neglect case, but under state law those records are sealed.
Virginia Harrington told the Journal that Andii White and her husband wouldn’t consent to the Harringtons becoming guardians because they had promised the baby to Kushman.
“It was just a crazy deal,” Virginia Harrington told the Journal.
When she and her husband drove to Clovis in January to find the baby, “I had no idea there were all these other kids in the (Kushman) home. …”
CYFD spokesman Rob Johnson wouldn’t divulge the whereabouts of the children removed in July but told the Journal on Friday, “I can tell you that the children are safe.” As for the infant in foster care, Virginia Harrington told the Journal she hopes “in the end, she’ll end up with us forever.”