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New Mexico Attorney General to Focus on Children’s Civil Rights

ALBUKERC, New Mexico (AP) — New Mexico’s Attorney General wants to start a conversation with lawmakers and the governor in the hopes of charting a new course for a state besieged by violent crime, poor educational outcomes and persistently dismal child welfare ratings.

Attorney General Raul Torres, who took office Jan. 1 after serving as a district attorney in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district, wants to focus on children’s civil rights by giving them legal representation.

The Democrat says New Mexico is off the charts when it comes to abuse and neglect, and creating a dedicated unit in the attorney general’s office could help turn the tide when it comes to dealing with bad childhood experiences that often lead to that young people are criminally responsible. justice system.

Torres outlined his administration’s priorities and the legislative session starting Tuesday in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

While acknowledging a number of public safety, bail reform and gun control bills to be introduced by lawmakers, he said he wants more attention to be given to the role that child welfare plays in the state’s problems.

Torres worked on one of the state’s most high-profile child abuse cases in private practice and was often 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 all comes back to what happens when kids end up in dangerous or destabilized homes or don’t get the help they need in the classroom.

“The people we are trying to detain today are usually kids who were let down by the system 15-20 years ago. That’s where they end,” he said. “And so what I’m trying to do now is move the lens and move my focus away from public safety and further upstream to see if we have a way to prevent people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Advocates, who have pushed for years to reform New Mexico’s child protection system, are buoyed by the prospects. Some describe it as a “public health crisis,” pointing to scientific studies that show that abuse, neglect, and other adverse events are known to lead to negative outcomes later in life.

New Mexico will join California and other states that have dedicated children’s rights offices or independent watchdog groups that oversee child protection agencies.

West Virginia, for example, has an office dedicated to the stability of education for foster youth and juvenile justice, and more than a dozen other state legislatures passed bills in 2022 to create advisory boards, councils, and training committees focused on streamlining childcare services and accountability.

In New Mexico, the Department of Children, Youth and Families underwent a personnel reshuffle under Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, and current clerk, retired Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil, has vowed to make changes.

The agency was criticized not only for removing children from their homes faster than they were supposed to, but also for not taking them into custody when abuse was suspected, leading to a lawsuit.

Maralyn Beck, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Child First Network, called the system broken and said she was encouraged by the Attorney General’s focus on the issue.

“Solutions exist,” she said. “We need to prioritize this as a real crisis that needs to be addressed, realizing that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Veronica Montano-Pilch, executive director of New Mexico Kids Matter, said her organization has about 500 court-appointed volunteers across the state to look after children as their cases go through the system, and working with Torrez’s office will help.

“Let’s say there’s a waterfall, and if you’re at the bottom and you’re just pulling people out, what good is that?” Montano-Pilch said. “They’re already wet, they’re already sinking.”

New Mexico consistently ranks the worst in the US when it comes to child welfare factors. The latest report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that one in four children in New Mexico lives in poverty, and more than one-third of parents do not have secure jobs. New Mexico also has the nation’s highest rate of children suffering from adverse experiences, according to national surveys and top state health officials.

Legislation to address problems is not new. Last year, lawmakers approved a move to create a new office that would provide legal representation to certain children, parents and guardians whose children may be placed in state custody.

However, a bill to create an ombudsman 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 institutions destroyed,” he said. “They are tired of seeing these children endangered, and we have the opportunity to do something. Other states have systems like this, and I think we’re ready for that here in New Mexico.”

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