Sgt. Amy Dudewicz offered a chilling response Tuesday when asked about the volume of child-abuse and neglect referrals sent to her office.
“We get more than we can respond to,” Dudewicz told a panel of Albuquerque city councilors and Bernalillo County commissioners.
Dudewicz, who works in the special victims unit of the sheriff’s office, was among about two dozen speakers who testified during a special city-county meeting called in response to the killing of 10-year-old Victoria Martens – a crime that’s shocked the community.
Some testimony was tearful, some sobering. Councilors and commissioners heard from foster parents, educators, neighborhood leaders, pediatricians and others.
The ultimate goal, City Councilor Klarissa Peña said, is to honor Martens’ memory by launching new efforts to address child abuse and related problems, such as drug addiction and mental illnesses. Tuesday’s meeting, she said, was the first of what she hopes will become an ongoing community conversation.
Peña is chairwoman of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Government Commission. She and County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, vice chairwoman, called Tuesday’s special meeting.
They heard plenty of ideas, some of which would take more money to carry out, such as adding social workers and police officers to more schools.
Others wouldn’t cost much at all, such as raising awareness about how to report child abuse.
Kristine Meurer, executive director of student, family and community supports at Albuquerque Public Schools, said New Mexico is a mandatory reporting state, meaning that everyone – not just teachers – is required to report child abuse if they suspect it.
Maltreatment of children can be reported to the state 24 hours a day by calling 1-855-333-SAFE, or #SAFE (#7233) from a cellphone.
Meurer told city councilors and county commissioners that the basic state funding provided to APS focuses on education, not the hiring of social workers needed to help children facing trouble at home. The district has just 13 social workers on staff to work with students who aren’t part of special-education programs.
“We have more and more students coming to our schools in crisis,” Meurer said. “They are living in trauma when they come to our schools.”
The hiring of social workers and counselors, she said, “is where our need really lies.”
As for finding money to pay for new programs, Bernalillo County imposed a new tax last summer to pay for new behavioral health services. It raises about $17 million a year, though officials are still debating how best to use the money.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said she would do everything she can to secure federal funding to help keep children safe.
“There’s a reality here: We have a responsibility to do better,” she said.
Two pediatricians from the University of New Mexico said they need more resources – that there are hundreds of children harmed for every one who makes the news.
“What we need is to have more conversations about the value of a child’s life than we do conversations about the value of a barrel of oil,” said Leslie Strickler, medical director of the Child Abuse Response Team at UNM.
Shalon Nienow, a child-abuse pediatrician at UNM, described the problem this way: “I don’t even know where to begin, it’s so enormous. What we’re doing right now isn’t working.”
Tuesday’s three-hour meeting came after two gruesome crimes in Albuquerque.
Police say Victoria Martens was drugged, raped and killed before her body was partially dismembered and set on fire last week. Three adults, including her mom, have been charged in her death.
Then on Sunday, police found 11-year-old Nhi Nguyen and her mother, Cam Thi To, shot dead. Police say they believe To’s husband, 45-year-old Trinh Tran Van, shot and killed them before killing himself.