New Mexico Attorney General wants to handle fatal Child Abuse cases
Attorney General Hector Balderas wants New Mexico lawmakers to expand his authority by allowing him to take over child abuse cases resulting in death without having to wait for a district attorney to decline to prosecute, dismiss the case or ask for his help.
Why? Balderas said in a phone interview Friday that his office is well equipped to handle such cases and he wants to be able to step in and help children whenever its resources are needed, “like the Navy SEALs.”
“When prosecutors have referred complex, tragic cases to us, we’ve had above-average success rates,” Balderas said.
Balderas said his office is uniquely equipped to handle complicated child abuse cases because his staff includes victim advocates, investigators, lawyers and appellate attorneys, meaning he could handle all aspects of a case without having to rely on other agencies to bring a case to trail.
“In every community, there are sometimes unhealthy tensions between law enforcement, child protective agencies and the DA’s Office,” Balderas said. “But we are one unit. We collaborate at every stage. We are always working together.”
Under current laws, Balderas said, he has to wait for the prosecutor in the judicial district where a case arises to either ask for his help, dismiss a case or decline to prosecute before the Attorney General’s Office can jump in.
“To me, that’s just not sound policy when we are in a child abuse crisis,” Balderas said. “Now is the time to make the attorney general an equal partner. I shouldn’t have to ask for permission. It shouldn’t be a failure in the system that triggers our ability to intervene.”
Balderas said district attorneys usually work well with his office but sometimes don’t agree on the best way to attack a case.
He pointed to a recent high-profile child abuse death in the Taos area in which authorities say a 3-year-old boy abducted by his father from the child’s mother’s home in Georgia was found dead after being denied medications and instead subjected to Islamic prayer rituals for healing. Balderas said that case is an example of one that could have benefited from his office’s expertise.
The attorney general said he offered 8th Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos his help at the outset of the Taos County case, but Gallegos didn’t consult with him until after a judge denied a motion to hold the defendants without bail while they await trial.
“I offered meaningful support and strategy so they could win and the community would get a timely and aggressive prosecution,” Balderas said. “I don’t believe it’s collaboration when you are only calling after a loss or setback.”
Gallegos did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
In other cases, Balderas said, the state Children, Youth and Families Department has made investigative missteps that affected the outcome.
CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson said Friday she didn’t know enough about Balderas’ proposal to comment at length she welcomes the chance to partner with Balderas or any other law enforcement agency on improving front-end investigations to better protect the state’s children. Jacobson added that her agency might not be affected if the law were changed because CYFD doesn’t participate in criminal investigations.
A spokesman for Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez in Albuquerque referred questions to New Mexico District Attorney’s Association President Dianna Luce.
Luce, a prosecutor in southeastern New Mexico, said in an email that Balderas had not contacted her organization about proposed legislation and that she cannot comment in her capacity as association president until she knows more.
“As the elected district attorney in the Fifth Judicial District,” she wrote, “I’m opposed to giving blanket authority to another entity outside of my district. Our prosecutors have experience in prosecuting these types of cases and have successfully prosecuted child abuse resulting in death cases.”
In Santa Fe, First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna said in an email Friday he also hadn’t seen the proposed law change and wanted a chance to discuss it with Balderas and the District Attorney’s Association to see what exactly the attorney general proposes.
“I can’t speak for all district attorneys in our state,” Serna wrote, “but I would anticipate opposition to the Attorney General’s position, considering each DA is elected to their respective districts.”
Serna added that he has a “great working relationship” with Balderas’ office and will continue to request assistance or pull resources from the Attorney General’s Office when needed.
Balderas said he is working to draft legislation and find a legislative sponsor.