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State child-abuse statute clear in its requirements

As a general rule, judges do not comment on pending cases. But I think it’s both allowable and appropriate to note how we have all been horrified as recent incidents of severe child abuse have unfolded before us. Sadly, these stories are neither new nor unique, although this does not make them less horrific.

biz_web_filler_columnsIn the closing days of our Legislature, new laws were being considered in the hopes of preventing these incidents by allowing authorities more discretion to remove children from their households. More money will be spent on the Children, Youth and Families Division (CYFD), the state agency tasked with protecting “our most vulnerable citizens.” Maybe this will help. But let’s look at a powerful tool for protecting abused children that has been on the books for 20 years now.

Chapter 32A, New Mexico Statutes, compiles our Child Abuse and Neglect laws. Section 32A-4-3, NMSA, was enacted in 1993. It states: “Every person, including (medical providers); a law-enforcement officer; a judge …; a school teacher; a school official; a social worker … or member of the clergy … who knows or has a reasonable suspicion that a child is an abused or neglected child shall report that matter immediately to (police, CYFD, or tribal authorities).” (Emphasis added) The statute goes on to require authorities to “take immediate steps to ensure prompt investigation” and “to protect the health or welfare of the … child.” Failure to report knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse is a criminal offense, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, a $1000 fine, or both.

“Every person … who knows or has a reasonable suspicion … (of abuse) shall report that matter …” That is one powerful statute, in theory at least. It would provide CYFD with hundreds of thousands of eyes across every mile of New Mexico, and under every roof. That is, if each of us does what the law requires. Some might worry about civil liability if a report proves to be unfounded. Don’t. Section 32A-4-5 provides immunity to those who report suspected child abuse unless the report was made “in bad faith or with malicious purpose.” Concerned you might create bad feelings with a neighbor or ruin a Saturday outing at the mall? Balance that against knowing you could have made a difference, maybe prevented a child’s death. Section 32A-4-3 is indeed a powerful law, but does it really alter what many consider has been every person’s responsibility long before 1993 – what Nelson Mandela called our debt to children everywhere ?

A popular TV show places bystanders and, by proxy, the audience in various social scenarios from the merely uncomfortable to the clearly criminal and asks, “What Would You Do?” Seems to me 32A-4-3 just tells us to “do the right thing” when we become aware of a child’s plight, but you can “Judge for Yourself,” especially if you see a child who may be in danger.

LAW LA PALOOZA: The next “Law La Palooza” will be held on March 13 at the Herman Sanchez Community Center, 1830 William SE, from 3-6 p.m. “Law La Palooza” events are a cooperative venture between the Second Judicial District Court, community legal service providers, the State Bar of New Mexico, UNM Law School, and private practice attorney volunteers. Free legal consultations are provided on topics ranging from child support to debtor’s rights and from bankruptcy to personal injury. Consultations are free of charge on a first come/first served basis. Spanish speaking attorneys, and interpreters in many other language areas, including Sign, are available. If you have a legal problem or question, we hope you will attend this event. Come early and bring any and all your documents with you.

Alan M. Malott is a judge of the 2nd Judicial District Court. Before joining the court, he practiced law throughout New Mexico for 30 years and was a nationally certified civil trial specialist. If you have questions, send them to Judge Malott, P.O. Box 8305, Albuquerque, NM 87198 or email to: Opinions expressed here are solely those of Judge Malott individually and not those of the court.