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AG backs bill to improve responses to child abuse cases

Pastor Laura Bobbs of Faith Temple Church of God and Christ in Albuquerque, Attorney General Hector Balderas, center, and state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, speak at a news conference Thursday in Santa Fe in support of a bill to combat child abuse. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Pastor Laura Bobbs of Faith Temple Church of God and Christ in Albuquerque, Attorney General Hector Balderas, center, and state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, speak at a news conference Thursday in Santa Fe in support of a bill to combat child abuse. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — With New Mexico reeling from a string of recent prominent child abuse cases, state Attorney General Hector Balderas said Thursday that he’ll back legislation creating a multiagency review team and allowing his agency to order independent investigations.

Critics say the state’s current system allows at-risk children to fall through the cracks, such as Victoria Martens, a 10-year old Albuquerque girl who was sexually assaulted and killed last year.

Both the state Children, Youth and Families Department and the Albuquerque Police Department were told about allegations involving Martens in the months before her death, but the agencies have maintained they followed set policies and were limited in what actions they could take.

In a Thursday news conference, Balderas, a Democrat, said recent cases – including the Martens case – have shown the need for a more collaborative approach to combat child abuse.

“This legislation would identify funding and jurisdictional gaps that may have played a role in past tragedies,” Balderas said. “As children are dying, we have to improve the system.”

He also presented statistics indicating 27 New Mexico minors were homicide victims during a recent three-year period – more than half of them at the hands of primary caregivers.

The legislation backed by the AG’s Office was filed at the state Capitol this week by Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

It would create a team consisting of prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officers and child-safety workers to review child abuse-related homicides. Although some of the group’s work would be confidential, it would be required to submit an annual public report to state officials and lawmakers, which could include recommendations for policy changes or new laws.

Asked whether the legislation would impose an unfunded mandate on already cash-strapped agencies, Balderas said he’s been in touch with top officials at the Children, Youth and Families Department about potential options, including using existing revenues.

Padilla, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday that he grew up in an abusive home and is determined to improve the state’s preparedness for and response to child abuse cases.

“I do believe these are some of the worst crimes that have happened in the history of New Mexico,” Padilla said, referring to the cases of Victoria Martens and Omaree Varela, who was killed by his mother in 2013.

Also attending Thursday’s news conference was Laura Bobbs, a minister and close friend of Victoria Martens’ family, who called the recent string of cases tragic.

“It has to stop, and we will find the ways and means to stop it,” she said.

The measure, Senate Bill 294, has been assigned to three committees and was still awaiting its first hearing as of Thursday.

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