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The reaction I get from people that I talk to is really one of horror — 9th Judicial District Attorney Brian Stover
Former friends and relatives said they knew for years the place on Curry Road in Texico, New Mexico, was a house of horror. They recently told New Mexico State Police how they notified authorities that the hungry children who lived there were physically abused, locked in dog kennels, and more recently, chained to their beds.
But nothing seemed to change.
Their disturbing allegations have led to the arrest of a third woman in the alleged child abuse conspiracy, which was discovered after New Mexico State Police and investigators with the state Children Youth and Families Department went to the home July 22 after receiving an anonymous report.
A subsequent State Police search recovered chains, wooden paddles and cellphone video showing the abuse, including an 11-year-old boy in a fetal position chained to his bunk bed.
Court records show the investigation is now delving back to at least 2016, when State Police allege Kushman and her then-girlfriend Lora Melancon were living together.
Melancon, 41, of Clovis, was arrested Sept. 2 on four counts of abuse of a child and bonded out of jail Sept. 7. She is set for a preliminary hearing on Thursday. Kushman and Sena, meanwhile, are being held without bond on multiple child abuse and obstruction of an investigation charges. Six children have been removed from the home.
“The reaction I get from people that I talk to is really one of horror,” 9th Judicial District Attorney Brian Stover told the Journal last week. “They can’t believe this happened first of all, and that it happened for as long as it did.”
He said his office is working with the state Attorney General’s Office to help with forensic interviews of the children and with CYFD to ensure the children are receiving the proper services and counseling.
Since the more recent removal, the 11-year-old boy has now gained more than 10 pounds. Seized video from Kushman’s cellphone shows him saying he hadn’t eaten in two days, State Police reported at a Sept. 2 detention hearing for Kushman.
CYFD, local police
Asked about allegations involving Texico Police Chief Douglas Bowman, Stover said, “At this point, all I can say about that is every aspect of this case is being investigated by the New Mexico State Police and if we have sufficient evidence that there were individuals who knew the abuse was happening and did not report it or did not take steps to stop it, we will pursue that.” He added that Bowman has been cooperative with State Police.
Lawyers for Melancon, Kushman and Sena couldn’t be reached for comment, but Kushman testified at a Sept. 2 preliminary hearing that she chained up two of her children, not to torture them, but because they had emotional disorders.
Police Chief Bowman told the Journal in a phone interview on Monday that he never saw any evidence that there was abuse in the home.
He told State Police investigators last month “if he knew something like this was happening, he would’ve acted on it,” according to the criminal complaint in Melancon’s case. During the State Police interview, Bowman said there was a time “he felt CYFD was targeting” Kushman.
“Bowman went on to say ‘If I was there by myself, it was one thing, but I was always there with CYFD’ and they felt like it was fine,” according to the complaint. Bowman said “every time he responded there was water and food and (the children) never appeared malnourished.”
One State Police investigator reported asking Bowman “how something like this (was) happening for numerous years and numerous CYFD referrals (and) nobody knew anything or did something for these children. It is surreal and baffling that this was happening and nobody acted until New Mexico State Police got involved,” the criminal complaint states.
In the interview with the Journal, Bowman questioned whether someone tipped off Kushman and others before the visits “for us not to find anything.”
“I’m maintaining I’ve done what I was able to do at the time. Had there been more, I assure you I would have made an arrest. The people of this community know that,” said Bowman, who has been police chief for 14 years.
A State Police lapel camera video of the July 22 encounter at the home suggests CYFD had been involved in inspecting the home in the past. And at least one CYFD investigator on the scene was already familiar with Kushman, Melancon, and the layout of the home.
At one point, the CYFD investigator told a State Police officer “they used to keep them in dog cages. We’ve taken these kids away from them before for being in dog cages.”
There was no explanation of why the children were returned to the home.
So far, the criminal complaints filed in the case, along with other court records, show:
Since 2012, Kushman has been appointed kinship guardian for three of the six children found in her care – a boy who is 11 and receives Social Security disability, and two nieces, ages 14 and 15, whose mother Kristina Kushman was charged with child abuse in 2015. Those charges were dropped after Kristina was found to be incompetent to stand trial.
The three Kushman children and Sena’s two children were removed from the home July 22, along with a 16-year-old who told authorities she had been staying there for a few months.
The criminal complaint filed Sept. 2 against Melancon by Sgt. Jerry Hernandez, the lead State Police criminal investigator on the case, documents interviews with six people in recent weeks who said they wished they could have stopped the abuse. One produced a photo she took of a wooden kennel she saw at the home in 2016 with a pillow and blanket inside. Two broke down in tears during their interviews.
One was a former babysitter for the boy, AB, and one of the girls, CK, who came forward the day after Kushman’s arrest to say that she had witnessed abuse of the children when Kushman was living with her longtime girlfriend Melancon as far back as 2016.
The babysitter told State Police she saw CK placed inside a dog kennel at the home and she saw then Chief Bowman “go by the residence and look …(at)CK inside a dog kennel with a single blanket while in the winter and do nothing about it.” Bowman denied that account in his interview with State Police.
The babysitter also recounted visiting Kushman and Melancon in the nearby town of Farwell, Texas, and recalled the time she said they poured about seven gallons of milk and a pudding mixture into a baby pool outside. Both AB and CK were placed inside the pool because Kushman and Melancon “thought it was funny.” But the boy got into trouble after he began to eat the pudding from the pool because he was hungry, she reported to the State Police.
In early 2020, the same former babysitter returned to the Texico home and noted the dog kennels with CK and AB locked up inside. She left the home, and called CYFD three times over the next two weeks and had called CYFD in the past as well, the complaint states.
The woman, now 29, said Bowman had responded to the Texico household multiple times in reference to the child abuse allegations.
A former best friend of Kushman’s told officers she and her mother went to the home in 2016, couldn’t find CK anywhere, and discovered the girl in what was appeared to be a 4 x 4 locked cage located on the front porch. When the girl asked to get out to use the restroom, Kushman reportedly told her to sit back down or lay down. “At the time it was about 25 degrees outside, and the girl had no jacket on.” When the former friend left the home she called Child Protective Services “but does not know what happened to the case,” the complaint states.
The woman’s mother confirmed that account in her recent State Police interview, noting that Kushman “has cheated the State System for years, and has had the Texico Police Chief Douglas Bowman in her ‘back pocket.’” Other witnesses said Bowman and Kushman were friends, which Bowman denies.
A man who knew Kushman and Melancon told State Police that he alerted CYFD as far back as 2018 or 2019 that he saw the boy, AB, chained by his ankle to the fireplace inside the home. One time, he said, the boy began to eat leftover rice from a dog’s bowl after the dogs had finished eating.
But he said he knew “that every time CYFD was called Kushman and Lora would get a heads up from Bowman or someone else. When the women were alerted they immediately began to clean the residence and dress AB and CK in matching outfits, unchained.”
That man told State Police he knew the two women “were untouchable because of them being alerted CYFD was going to check on them.”
In 2019, the man said he called the dispatch for the Clovis police to report the abuse and “specifically told the dispatcher not to notify the Texico Police Department.” The small town of Texico is about 20 miles from Clovis.
But the complaint states the man got a call from a Texico police officer anyway. He explained what he saw, only to be confronted by Kushman later “for what he had done.”
No action was taken, he contended, telling State Police that “he didn’t know who to call that he could trust.” Later the man had to pick up an engine he had left at Kushman’s home and Bowman showed up.
The man contended he asked the police chief about the status of his child abuse complaint, and the police chief told him his “story did not check out, but Kushman’s did,” the State Police complaint stated.
Bowman told the Journal he doesn’t recall the man asking him about the case, which was assigned to an officer who has since died of COVID-19.
Bowman told State Police he had been at the Kushman residence numerous times years back “when CYFD claimed children at the residence were being kept inside cages on the front porch.”
He said he learned from one of his officers about the alarm that would alert Kushman and Melancon when AB and CK would leave their room.
But his agency didn’t follow up on the alarm, he told State Police, noting it wasn’t against the law to have an alarm or motion detector in the house.
“I then explained to Bowman a follow-up was required to see what type of alarm was being used,” State Police Sgt. Hernandez said in his complaint. He told the police chief that the alarm was attached to a chain used to restrain two of the children to their beds by their ankles.
“So, if there was to be a follow-up, maybe this would’ve been discovered sooner but there wasn’t,” Hernandez wrote.
In the Journal interview, Stover underscored the importance of reporting suspected child abuse to CYFD and law enforcement.
Asked about CYFD’s response in the Texico case, Stover said, “I do have opinions about things with that agency, but I know a lot of times they’re fighting with at least one, maybe two arms, tied behind their back.”
“To realize that it (the Texico abuse) went on for this long is heartbreaking to us, and that we didn’t get to it sooner.”
CYFD response to Journal questions
Here is the full statement New Mexico Children, Youth and Families sent in response to Journal questions about the Texico case:
“We are grateful that we were able to work with our partners at the State Police in order to get these children out of this situation,” said CYFD Cabinet Secretary Barbara J. Vigil.
“CYFD’s new critical-incident review process focuses on how we can improve our work and how agencies, including law enforcement, can better work in tandem to collaboratively protect New Mexico children. The Department will now examine every action taken or failed to be taken – and why. We are committed to building a stronger system which is capable of responding rapidly and effectively based on safety science. That in-depth review of this particular case is ongoing,” she said.
CYFD makes every effort to take appropriate action in response to complaints or referrals regarding harm to children.
Incident reports require a safety assessment, and may require intake, investigation, prevention services or intervention services.
That said, New Mexico Children’s Code, which protects the rights and privacy of New Mexico’s children and families, requires that the Department keep confidential specific case information about steps taken in any case, so we cannot comment on the specifics referred to by the witnesses in the complaint.
The fact that CYFD cannot comment on case specific information does not mean CYFD did not take action.