The politics of child abuse

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By Hal Rhodes

If any one person deserves credit for the creation of New Mexico’s Department of Children, Youth and Families it must surely be Alice King, wife of the state’s longest serving (12 years) governor, Bruce King.
Alice and Bruce King are now deceased, and more’s the pity.
But during their three (non-consecutive) terms in Santa Fe it was widely understood that the governor not only cherished his wife, he trusted her judgment and valued her counsel.
In the early years Mrs. King publicly feigned to be little more than the traditional “First Lady” — wife, mother, help-mate.
One year into Bruce King’s final term as governor, however, Alice King came into her own by putting her experience and political savvy to the task of consolidating various programs critical to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children and young people that, despite good intentions, frequently languished throughout the far-flung agencies of state government.
In 1992, that consolidation became the single, cabinet-level department we know today as Children, Youth and Families, CYFD, focused on issues central of New Mexico life.
Editorialists and child advocacy groups hailed the new department’s creation and lauded the First Lady for fostering a new era in which the welfare of children would no longer fall between the bureaucratic cracks of duplication and neglect.
It was a promising beginning and, notwithstanding occasional stumbles, over the years it seemed to have vindicated that promise.
During the tenure of Gov. Susana Martinez, however, CYFD has emerged as one of the most troubled components of state government and the troubles multiply almost daily. Just last week, the governor’s CYFD was hit with a lawsuit in federal district court claiming that due to departmental incompetence a young girl had been subjected to emotional and physical abuse by a stranger.
As reported by the Las Cruces Sun-News, despite a court order establishing the father’s custody, a CYFD staffer ordered the girl returned to her mother, whereupon the girl ended up in the mobile home of strangers with the mother nowhere to be found.
It might be a comedy of errors, but the lawsuit contends it isn’t funny: “This is not a case of an overwhelmed (CYFD) system allowing a child to fall through the cracks,” the attorney pressing the suit said. “This is a case of poorly trained and poorly supervised government agencies flagrantly disobeying a court order and placing a child in danger.”
This is hardly what Alice King envisioned for the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Yet it comes hard on the heels of other horror stories out of the department, and Democrats running for their party’s gubernatorial nomination this year are taking note at Gov. Martinez’s expense.
On the same day CYFD was being hauled into federal court, headlines erupted: “Man accused of assaulting 4-month old.” “Girl on life support after suspected abuse, rape by mom’s boyfriend.”
It’s a grotesque story, the stuff of which political attacks are rarely far behind.
Indeed, at least one Democratic hopeful, Lawrence Rael, didn’t hesitate to do just that, noting in a press release that the “Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) was alerted to situations in the (baby’s) home three times.”
“Governor Martinez has failed to protect our children, again,” Rael said in his statement that also cited the CYFD’s failure to intervene in the nightmare of 9-year old Omaree Varela, who was recently murdered, allegedly by an abusive of mother.
Chances are it’s only a matter of time before one or another Democrat running for governor reminds the governor that just a year ago she nixed some $6 million in additional funds for CYFD.