Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Reportings of suspected child abuse and neglect have ticked up nearly 20 percent in the wake of last month’s brutal killing of 10-year-old Victoria Martens and a campaign by the state Children, Youth and Families Department to remind people about its #SAFE program.
The program encourages people to enter #SAFE on their phones if they suspect a child is the victim of abuse or neglect.
The increase in reporting to CYFD’s Statewide Central Intake was based on a comparison of corresponding days in August and September 2016, at 15,856 calls, over 2015, at 13,239, said CYFD spokesman Henry Varela.
The Martens case was “so critical we moved quickly to increase awareness of #SAFE,” said CYFD Cabinet Secretary Monique Jacobson.
If the calls about abuse or neglect involve a parent, guardian or someone in the household, it is screened in for investigation by CYFD; if the call involves someone outside the household, such as a coach, teacher or neighbor, then CYFD cross-reports the call to local law enforcement for investigation, Jacobson said.
From 2011, when #SAFE was established, to 2016, the agency on average gets 35,000 calls a year. Of those, about 20,000 were routed to CYFD for investigation, and the rest forwarded to law enforcement.
Of the calls to CYFD, investigators found that between 20 percent and 30 percent had enough evidence to substantiate that abuse or neglect had occurred, she said.
Depending on the severity of the situation, families can be referred into a host of services or CYFD can ask law enforcement to immediately remove a child who is in danger. It can also petition the court to maintain custody of a child who has already been placed in department custody.
“That’s really important because we still have to find evidence,” Jacobson said. “CYFD doesn’t take custody in every case in which there is abuse or neglect. Rather, law enforcement or the courts give us custody.”
Victoria Martens, who had never been the subject of abuse calls to CYFD, was found dead in her family’s apartment Aug. 24. Police say they believe the little girl was forced to use methamphetamine before being raped and stabbed. Police found her body dismembered, burned and still smoldering in a bathtub.
Arrested in connection with the savage killing was the child’s mother, Michelle Martens, 35, along with her boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales, 31, and the boyfriend’s cousin, Jessica Kelley, 31. On Friday, attorneys for the trio entered pleas of not guilty for their clients.
“This is one of the most horrific cases that any of us have ever seen, and as Cabinet secretary of CYFD and as a mom, I can tell you it has rocked us all to our cores,” Jacobson said.
“We need to do all we can to help keep our children safe, and #SAFE is the right way to get the community engaged and get them to call and report suspected child abuse and neglect.”
The #SAFE hotline is part and parcel of CYFD’s larger $2.3 million PullTogether initiative, which enlists all members of the community to fight for and improve the quality of life for New Mexico’s children.
PullTogether.org, the website, provides information on community and CYFD programs and services by breaking them down for those who need help and those who are offering help.
The push to promote #SAFE involves advertising in English and Spanish on television, in newspapers and through various social media, Jacobson said. Informational posters and pamphlets are also being placed in schools, community centers, community health clinics, and state offices, including Motor Vehicle Division branches.
#SAFE also occupies a prominent space on PullTogether.org, which explains what constitutes neglect and abuse and the signs to look for to identify neglect as well as physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Since the PullTogether initiative was launched in May, the website has had more than 90,000 visitors, Jacobson said.
Another byproduct of the initiative has been an increase in donations to the Court Appointed Special Advocates program in Bernalillo County, as well as an increase in donations to the CASA program, said Veronica Montaño-Pilch, the executive director of New Mexico Kids Matter, which administers the CASA program in the county.
CASA volunteers, who get assigned by the court monitor a child as soon as the child enters foster care, monitor the child’s progress and report directly back to the judge.
Jacobson said that during her time as CYFD secretary, “I’ve talked to many kids who came through our system, and they told me how important it was that somebody stepped up and was their voice, because as children they felt they didn’t have a voice or that anybody was looking out for them.”
The PullTogether initiative and services such as #SAFE show that New Mexico’s children are being heard and watched, she said.