Child protection bills roll through New Mexico Legislature

SANTA FE, N.M. — The hot-button issues of abortion, right-to-work and driver’s licenses for people suspected of being in the country illegally have led to a string of largely party-line votes during the first half of what has been a rancorous legislative session.

But Republicans and Democrats in New Mexico have been able to find common ground on at least one key issue: keeping children safe and cracking down on those who hurt them.

Their unity is driven in part by a series of recent high-profile child abuse cases and a desire to overcome New Mexico’s position on the wrong end of the rankings when it comes to child well-being.

Federal data shows New Mexico had one of the steepest increases in child victims between 2009 and 2013, putting the state in the top five nationally. The number of registered sex offenders reported by the state in 2014 was nearly 6,700, with a per capita figure of 325 that places New Mexico among the top 12 in the US, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The bills tackling crimes against children are “non-partisan issues and from our perspective it’s part and parcel of making kids’ lives a little bit more secure,” said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, whose bill to clarify a law requiring the reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect to authorities has cleared the House.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have been pushing for clarification of the reporting law since an appellate court ruled in 2013 to narrow the list of people who had a duty to report abuse.

“Every single person in our state should be required to protect our children and report child abuse if they know or suspect it to be occurring,” Martinez said in a statement.

The spotlight on child abuse and neglect continued with the case of Omaree Varela, a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy who police say was kicked to death by his mother in December 2013.

Bills were introduced “in response to widespread outrage over things that were happening to our children,” Egolf said. “It was not just Omaree Varela but hundreds of kids who don’t make it into the news.”

The latest bill to pass the House this week was one by Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, that aims to crack down on sexual predators attempting to secretly view or record a person’s intimate parts. She said the measure is designed to protect families.

Caleb Kimpel, a writer and researcher with the Phoenix-based child abuse prevention organization Childhelp, said laws are necessary but they have to be backed up with the means needed for enforcement.

“It’s important to add personnel and resources to respond to more victims in need,” he said.

Both the governor’s office and the Legislative Finance Committee have made child welfare a priority in proposed spending plans for the state for the next fiscal year. This includes funding for more social workers and programs that would encourage law enforcement agencies to work with advocates to keep abuse cases from falling through the cracks.

Other child protection measures cruising through the Legislature would:

  • make it mandatory for parents or guardians to receive court-ordered family services when there is strong evidence of child neglect or abuse, even when the victim is not taken into state custody.
  • require cellphone and pager companies to issue Amber Alerts about missing children to their customers.
  • make it a crime to send naked pictures of people to anyone under 16.
  • revise penalties for sexual exploitation of children by prostitution.