ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the nearly 15 years since New Mexico was rocked by one of the worst cases of child abuse the state had ever seen, no shortage of children have shared fates similar to Baby Brianna, who was beaten to death by her family.
And despite reforms of the state’s child welfare system, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas says there still are unacceptable gaps that need to be addressed.
Balderas raised his concerns in a letter sent this week to Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat who’s asking for a review in the wake of the latest deadly case — the slaying of 10-year-old Victoria Martens.
“New Mexico is not doing enough to protect its children,” he wrote. “While we pray for justice in the criminal case being prosecuted by the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office, it is obvious that systemic reforms are also necessary.”
Balderas said his staff would review issues surrounding opportunities where officials could have possibly intervened in the Martens case. He also plans to have meetings with top state officials.
Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson said Wednesday she welcomes the discussion. Many reforms have been put in place over the last 18 months, and she said the department’s mission includes continuously looking for ways to improve.
“We’re talking about children here. We’re committed to doing our job and improving,” she said in an interview.
The slaying of Victoria Martens last month shocked the state and reignited criticisms that officials were not doing enough to protect children. They echoed the concerns that were first raised by the Baby Brianna case and again by the 2013 beating death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela.
Baby Brianna died in July 2002. Her injuries included two skull fractures as well as broken ribs, legs and an arm. She also had been sexually assaulted. She had numerous bruises and human bite marks on her face and body.
Public outcry over the case helped lead to a change in state law that provides for life imprisonment — a mandatory 30 years in prison — for child abuse resulting in death.
Omaree’s case prompted a massive reform effort aimed at changing the way child abuse and neglect cases are investigated. His mother was sentenced in May to 40 years in prison.
Gov. Susana Martinez personally reviewed Omaree’s case, spurring a series of executive orders and policy changes aimed at keeping children from falling through the cracks and building seamless communication between case workers and law enforcement officers who are on the front lines of such investigations.
As a district attorney in Las Cruces, Martinez also headed up the prosecution of Baby Brianna’s mother, father and an uncle in 2003. The mother, Stephanie Rene Lopez, was released from prison Wednesday on good behavior after serving 13 years — less than half of her sentence.
The governor said she had sought the full measure of justice at the time but that the laws on the books were too weak.
“As a prosecutor, I took on many horrible, gruesome cases that involved children, and while I will never forget the victims I sought justice for, not a day goes by without thinking of Baby Brianna,” Martinez said. I still have her photo on my desk; it’s a constant reminder of who and what we’re fighting for.”
The governor vowed Wednesday to continue pushing for tougher punishments for those convicted of child abuse.
Jacobson said the consequences for convicted child abusers are just as important as the reforms that have been taking shape at the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
In the Martens case, Victoria’s mother, Michelle Martens, is accused of standing by while her boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales, drugged and raped her daughter. She told police Gonzales’ cousin, Jessica Kelley, stabbed Victoria before Gonzales choked her, according to a criminal complaint.
All three pleaded not guilty last week to multiple charges, including child abuse resulting in death.
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