ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico’s top attorney wants to start a conversation with lawmakers and the governor in hopes of charting a new course for a state beset by violent crime, poor educational outcomes and persistently poor student welfare rankings. children
Attorney General Raúl Torrez, who took office Jan. 1 after serving as the district attorney in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district, wants to focus on children’s civil rights providing legal representation.
The Democrat says New Mexico is off the charts when it comes to abuse and neglect — and the creation of a special unit in the attorney general’s office could help turn the tide when it comes to fighting the Adverse childhood experiences that often result in young people ending up in crime. justice system.
Torrez outlined the priorities for his administration and for the legislative session that begins Tuesday in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
While acknowledging the suite of public safety, bail reform and gun control bills to be introduced by lawmakers, he said he wants more attention to be placed on the role that child welfare plays in the problems of the state.
Torrez worked on one of the state’s highest-profile child abuse cases while in private practice and was frequently asked as district attorney about the source of Albuquerque’s crime and public safety issues.
He said there was a lot of talk about drugs and guns, but he believes it comes back to what happens when kids end up in dangerous or unstable homes or don’t get the help they need in the classroom.
“The people we’re trying to arrest today are usually kids who failed the system 15 and 20 years ago. That’s where they end up,” he said. “And so what I’m trying to do now is move the lens and move my focus not away from public safety, but further upstream to see if there’s a way to prevent people from coming into contact with the system of criminal justice in the first place.”
Advocates who have pushed for years for child welfare reforms in New Mexico are excited about the prospects. Some describe it as a “public health crisis,” pointing to scientific research that shows abuse, neglect, and other adverse experiences are known to result in negative outcomes later in life.
New Mexico will join California and other states that have special offices focused on children’s rights or independent oversight panels that monitor child welfare agencies.
West Virginia, for example, has an office dedicated to educational stability for youth and juvenile justice and more than a dozen other state legislatures have enacted bills in 2022 to establish advisory councils, boards and study committees focused on simplifying children’s services and accountability.
In New Mexico, the Department of Children, Youth and Families experienced turnover during the administration of Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the current secretary – retired Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil – has he promised to make changes.
The agency was criticized not only for removing children from their homes faster than they should have, but also for not taking care when abuse was suspected, resulting in legal action.
Maralyn Beck, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Child First Network, described the system as broken and said she is encouraged by the attorney general’s attention to the problem.
“There are solutions,” he said. “We have to prioritize this as a real crisis that needs to be addressed while realizing that we are not going to reinvent the wheel.”
Veronica Montano-Pilch, executive director of New Mexico Kids Matter, said her organization has about 500 court-appointed volunteers in the state who look for children as their cases work through the system and who work with the office of Torrez would help.
“Say there’s a waterfall and if you’re at the bottom and people just pull you up, what’s the good?” Montano-Pilch said. “They’re already wet, they’re already drowning.”
New Mexico consistently ranks as the worst in the United States when it comes to child welfare factors. U last report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows one in four New Mexico children live in poverty and more than a third have parents without secure employment. New Mexico also has the nation higher rate of children who suffer from adverse experiences, according to national studies and the main health officials of the state.
Legislation aimed at solving the problems is not new. Last year, lawmakers approved it a measure that creates a new office which provides legal representation for certain children, parents and guardians whose children are at risk of being placed in state custody.
However, a bill that would have created an ombudsman oversight position stalled in the state Senate last year.
The attorney general said he believes the level of frustration has reached a point where people are ready for change.
“They are tired of seeing broken institutions,” he said. “They’re tired of seeing these kids put in harm’s way and we have the ability to do something. Other states have these types of systems in place and I think we’re ready for it here in New Mexico.”