Child maltreatment rates in New Mexico are among the highest in the nation. (Approximately 15 in every 1,000 children under the age of 18 have been victims of abuse.) With these numbers in mind, my office is initiating the inaugural Southwest Crimes Against Children Conference in New Mexico.
The guiding principle in my office and work continues to be “victims first.” With a good portion of my career being devoted to specializing in crimes against children, a conference initiative such as this is embedded in the fabric of our organizational purpose. In the fiscal year of 2022, approximately 11% of the cases in my district were felony child abuse. Extrapolate those numbers across the entire state, and it’s clear that action must be taken.
Unfortunately, we receive cases when the crimes have already been committed, so we can’t stop the abuse. But we can work collaboratively with our judicial partners in order that the outcome of each case is fair, just and right. We feel that through a coordinated approach to each case we can ensure that more abuse is not inflicted on children through the judicial process.
Within our district we have always had increased success with crimes against children cases by employing a collaborative multi-disciplinary team approach — when law enforcement agencies, investigators, forensic interviewers, victim advocates and prosecutors work with singular focus on the case at hand.
Thanks to a generous grant, we are able to produce this free two-day conference to bring together all who work directly with child victims of crime. We know from experience that a collaborative approach to cases from investigation to prosecution, including practical and interactive instruction, can only result in better outcomes, particularly for the victims. The conference design will include hands-on workshops, case studies, panel discussions and plenaries focused on improving understanding, and awareness in the handling of criminal child abuse cases with the guiding force being to reduce trauma for young victims.
We will bring together representatives from all law enforcement agencies, social workers, prosecutors, child advocates, forensic interviewers and members of the court in a collaborative setting to share best practices and knowledge, receive training in new aspects of the law, investigative techniques and protocols and prosecutorial approaches with the end goal of improving the handling of child abuse and neglect in New Mexico.
The state of New Mexico has a higher percentage of rural counties compared to much of the rest of the nation at around 23%. Six of the state’s 33 counties are considered by the U.S. Census as completely rural. Also, with 22 tribal communities, New Mexico has a 10.6% Native population. Because this conference is for the entire state, and representatives from all corners of the state are invited, the conference will provide a great opportunity for building capacity beyond the urban populace into the rural frontier and on Native lands. Because of a recent ruling by the Supreme Court (Oklahoma v Castro-Huerta) that says that the “Federal government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country,” many of the cases on tribal lands that were previously handled by the United States Attorney’s Office will now be handled by local district attorney offices and law enforcement. To this end, we will include workshops by Native instructors on cultural consideration and competence when handling cases involving Native children and their families.
Our keynote speaker will be noted expert in the field, Victor Vieth of the Zero Abuse Project. Vieth has trained thousands of child-protection professionals on numerous topics pertaining to child abuse investigations, prosecution and prevention. I will offer a workshop to guide prosecutors on how to charge child abuse cases. Workshops will include presentations on the importance of forensic interviews and how to read medical reports. Additional workshops will include the cross examination of defense experts, interviewing suspects, methods for dealing with secondary trauma in this line of work, case studies and the use and benefits of Court Assistance Dogs and Child Care Rooms when working with young victims.
This conference is free and open to all who work directly with child victims of crime, especially those who are involved in the prosecution and investigation of these crimes. More information and registration information can be found on our website, www.13th.nmdas.com
I am so pleased to be able to bring this initiative statewide to all those working in the state on these very important cases.
Barbara Romo is the district attorney for the 13th Judicial District covering Sandoval, Valencia and Cibola Counties.