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Editorial: Child protection measures should become NM laws

Three important bills to protect children in New Mexico are moving forward quickly in the current legislative session and should continue on to passage and enactment.

Two of them – had they been the law more than a year ago – might have made a difference in the life of 9-year-old Omaree Varela. Kicked “the wrong way” by his mother, Omaree’s tragic death in December 2013 became a catalyst for changing how state agencies, law enforcement and schools respond to suspicions of child abuse and neglect.

After Omaree’s death, Gov. Susana Martinez ordered sweeping changes in the Children Youth and Families Department and stepped up recruitment efforts to hire more social workers. The Albuquerque Police Department tightened up its policies and disciplined or fired several officers involved in his case.

Last week, the House of Representatives unanimously approved legislation that clarifies that all New Mexicans are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect. In 2013, a state Court of Appeals opinion clouded the issue when it interpreted existing state law to mean that only certain people, such as doctors, police officers and teachers, are required to report abuse or neglect.

Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who sponsored this session’s House Bill 29, said that’s not what legislators intended when they passed the original law, which makes knowing or suspecting that a child is being abused or neglected and not reporting it a misdemeanor.

Martinez has rightly pushed for the clarification and she and lawmakers are calling for more funding for CYFD.

The House also unanimously approved a bill that would require cellphone and pager companies to issue Amber Alerts at no additional expense to their customers in an affected geographical area. HB 271 was sponsored by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, who said expanding the system would save lives.

The Amber Alert program is a national voluntary partnership between law enforcement, the broadcast and wireless industries and transportation agencies. It was named in honor of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was abducted while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas. She was later found murdered.

The third bill, HB 118, passed the House 57-11. Sponsored by Rep. Kelly K. Fajardo, R-Belen, it would require parents or guardians to receive court-ordered family services when there is strong evidence of child neglect or abuse, even when the child is not taken into state custody.

The legislation is designed to help families make changes to improve the child’s life before problems escalate and to help ensure that a family does not have to be broken up to receive help. The services can include drug and alcohol counseling and/or parenting and anger management classes.

The goal is a safer, better functioning family where the child can remain in his or her home.

“With this bill passing the House floor, we are one step closer to adding another layer of protection for our children,” Fajardo said.

These three bills are headed to the state Senate. They are targeted toward helping and protecting society’s most vulnerable members.

New Mexico’s children should be protected to the fullest extent possible. Senators should pass these bills and the governor should sign them into law.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.