Fate of Child Abuse bills frustrates
New Mexico official
ALBUQUERQUE, NM – The head of New Mexico’s child welfare agency is frustrated that a string of measures aimed at closing loopholes and toughening penalties for those convicted of child abuse and similar crimes failed to reach Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk.
The 60-day legislative session wrapped up March 18, leaving on the table bills that had the support of Monique Jacobson, secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department.
“We brought forth bills that hold those who hurt our children accountable, hold those who hurt our workers accountable and make our juvenile justice system more effective,” she told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. “We believe those should be priority pieces of legislation and so for them to either die or not have time to even be voted on is frustrating.”
Facing a state fiscal crisis, the Democratic-controlled Legislature spent some time wrangling over the provisions of budget plans that called for millions of dollars in tax increases and other fee hikes despite the governor’s promise not to raise taxes.
The governor chided lawmakers for wasting time on legislation she did not support, adding to the chorus of criticism from various advocacy groups that the Legislature was spending too much time on non-binding measures such as designating special songs and a state green chile cheeseburger rather than addressing serious problems stemming from poverty.
Senate Democrats have argued that key pieces of legislation are awaiting the governor’s signature, from a balanced budget to measures important to communities around the state, such as banning the possession or purchase of firearms by people under permanent protective orders for domestic violence incidents.
As for the child welfare bills, one would have made it a felony for someone to lure a child to a secluded place with the intention of raping them or committing some other illegal act. Another would have expanded “Baby Brianna’s Law” to require mandatory life sentences for people convicted of intentional child abuse resulting in death, regardless of a child’s age.
The child welfare agency also supported a bill that would have closed a loophole in existing law regarding the transmitting of sexual images to children.
Also, the House overwhelmingly supported a bill calling for tougher punishments for abuse that didn’t result in death or great harm, but the measure stalled in the Senate.
Jacobson described photographs in which belt marks and bruises covered one boy’s legs while another boy had two black eyes.
While the state has been rocked in recent years by a wave of deadly child abuse cases, she said those that don’t have fatal results shouldn’t be minimized.
The agency receives about 20,000 calls annually that warrant further review for possible abuse or neglect. That number has escalated nearly every year since at least 2009.
State figures show close to 30 percent of the cases reviewed during the 2016 fiscal year were substantiated, with more than 2,800 cases involving physical or sexual abuse.
Lawmakers also let languish a measure boosting protection for social workers battered or assaulted while on the job. There have been instances in which workers have been followed home and the windows of agency cars have been shot out.
Jacobson questioned inaction on that measure given that lawmakers previously approved similar legislation to protect sports officials who are accosted.
Some lawmakers argue there’s no appetite for increasing penalties and that the focus should be on preventative measures.
Jacobson said her agency is doing what it can administratively to protect workers but that legal changes are needed to support that work and establish consequences for offenders.
“In New Mexico we need to send a message that we will not tolerate child abuse and this is an issue that matters to us as a state and yes we will focus on prevention but we also will hold people accountable,” she said.