There are two possible explanations for that, said DA Kari Brandenburg: Either there is more reporting of suspected abuse, triggered by the Omaree Varela case and other high-profile incidents in the news, or there is more abuse occurring.
In recognition of April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the district attorney’s monthly press conference focused on child abuse issues.
According to statistics compiled by the office, from 2011 through 2013, the number of cases submitted for screening rose from 771 to 946, while the number of those cases that resulted in indictments rose from 153 to 237. Brandenburg estimated that by the end of 2014, about 1,500 cases will have been submitted, resulting in up to 320 indictments.
When a child abuse incident is reported in Bernalillo County, it immediately triggers a multidisciplinary team response from Child Protective Services, law enforcement, prosecution, forensic interview services, and medical and mental health services. The goal is to ensure the child’s safety and minimize the child’s trauma, provide support and treatment to that child and others affected by the abuse, and facilitate the different investigating agencies.
Child abuse victims are often brought to the Children’s Safehouse, operated by All Faiths, a nonprofit that provides behavioral health services and operates the only forensics interview program in central New Mexico. The multidisciplinary team brings the system to the children and their families, instead of the victims having to go to individual agencies.
In some cases, child abuse victims are taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital for a medical evaluation by the Child Abuse Response Team, or CART, which determines the extent of medical issues such as skin injuries, burns, head and body trauma, bone injury and nutritional neglect.
When a child abuse case is submitted to the DA’s Crimes Against Children Division, an indictment of the offender is not automatically guaranteed, Brandenburg said.
Many sexual assault cases have no DNA, fingerprint or physical injury evidence, and where very young children are involved they may be too young to talk about what happened. In addition, she said, the burden of proof in court is extremely high.
Consequently, many of the submitted cases result in plea agreements, which spares a child the trauma of having to testify in court, and guarantees that the offender will be imprisoned for a time. Conviction statistics were not available.
Also present at the news conference was Dr. Renee Ornelas, medical director of Para Los Niños, the child sexual abuse program at the University of New Mexico. She noted that child abuse is the “end result” of a problem that starts with “where these children are living and how they are living.” It is often complicated by domestic violence in the home, poverty and a lack of mental health and substance abuse resources within the community, she said.
“You can’t fix the problem of child abuse without fixing all the other things that lead and contribute to it,” Ornelas said.