‘Tougher Sentencing’

'It was that emphatic "TOUGHER sentencing" that propelled me downtown this morning. I wanted to ask the folks involved about that, because my impression was that sentences were already plenty harsh.'

April 8, 2014

It was that emphatic "TOUGHER sentencing" that propelled me downtown this morning. I wanted to ask the folks involved about that, because my impression was that sentences were already plenty harsh.

I bracketed my wariness of corporate-sponsored social justice activism...

...replete with swag.

In recompense I got to hear and speak with some serious and inspiring New Mexicans.

Pamela Michaels is a self-described "dedicated partner" with the New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department (CYFD). According to Michaels, her adopted daughter Elery was shaken, beaten and starved. "Her survival was unlikely, in fact she flat lined twice. Hers was the worst case of Non-Accidental Trauma the doctors had ever witnessed, she was not expected to live," Pamela shared with us, warning she "might get emotional" during her talk.

I didn't write down every word of Pamela and the other fine speakers, but this is what stayed with me.

"At four months she weighed only 8 pounds. It was months before she felt safe enough to cry, before she could relax in our arms. Only five, she's had multiple major surgeries. She doesn't see like the rest of us, the shaking changed the focal points. If you shake a child for just seven seconds it has the same effects as if they'd been thrown out a window from thirty feet up. She has no voice, so we speak for her. She's been concussed, she has impaired mobility on her left side. She cannot sign, but she's one of the best communicators I know; she's a lucky survivor who continues to make progress. She's getting ready for another major neurosurgery. She's 100% permanently disabled, but she's a loving child with a vast desire to be more than her challenges. She should be out running and jumping and playing, but she's stuck in a chair, fed by a tube, locked in a body that doesn't do what it's supposed to."

Michaels told the crowd in the Plaza that she hopes "for more and better training, for an environment that supports child welfare workers, that pays them wages equal to the heavy responsibility they bear. I want to talk to the governor about that," she said pointing toward the Roundhouse. "I want to tell her, No more Elerys!"

District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer expressed her hope that the event would lead to more community awareness and participation. She urged the crowd to become Big Brothers and Big Sisters or volunteer in one of the tutoring programs, "to see the neglect in front of us." She said she hoped the business community could issue vouchers for poor kids "that they could use to buy food."

Cabinet Secretary Yolanda Berumen-Deines is a former social worker who believes that child well-being begins at home. "We want healthy families who can provide a safe home for the children in their care. But some families are broken, and we need to lend a big helping hand. They need healing, and futures!

"I hope you will all work hard to put CYFD out of business. Government can only do so much. Do you really want us in your business that much anyway?

"If you're in the grocery store and you see a parent struggling, go over to them, pat them on the back, remind them that parenting is the toughest job there is. Ask them, is there anything I can do to help? If they react defensively, don't take it personally, it's because they're so stressed, so overwhelmed."

Maria Jose Rodrigueq Cadiz, Executive Director of Solace thanked the crowd and told us, "You have a lot of heart. And it takes a lot of heart to respond to the children's acts of courage. Because it is an act of courage--when a child tells you what happened."

I asked Judge Sommer about the "TOUGHER sentencing" advertised in the event posters. She wasn't sure what that could be referencing. "I think the courts are already tough on child abuse. Reunification is always the goal," she informed me. "It's to that end that treatment plans are developed, and parents are given many opportunities along the way. They receive therapy, get help with their addictions. It's always a good day when the child gets returned. Punishments are meted out on a case-by-case basis. I've been tough when it's called for."

I asked her if she was seeing more women or men involved in abuse. "Both," she explained, "and it's often alcohol related, or heroin."

She was not aware that the Department of Corrections had issued an RFP to increase the women's prison in Grants from 611 to 850 beds. I asked her if she thought the urging for "TOUGHER sentencing" could be related to the proposed expansion. "You mean to fill the beds? No such thing! Judges don't think that way, we don't make that connection with the DOC."

I asked her how the judges would come to come to grips with the new CYFD protocols just issued by the governor. She explained there would be informal discussions among the judges. Judge Sommer invited me to come to criminal court, get educated, see what and how it happens. "We have no say where a criminal once convicted gets placed, that's totally up to the DOC."

When I asked Pamela Williams about "TOUGHER sentencing" she explained that often times in order to get people to participate in investigations, CYFD offers them "use immunity." In such cases, Williams instructed me, they can tell CYFD what happened and get immunity from prosecution. "In that sense they can get away with it, like Elery's parents; or sometimes they can plea bargain down to a much lighter sentence."

"But," she further explained, "I was trained as a forensic psychologist and worked in the prison system. I can tell you the prisoners are not taught any skills in prison, other than to become better criminals."

I asked her what she might say to anyone out there considering becoming a foster or adoptive parent.

"Do it!" she exclaimed cradling a foster baby in her arms. "It is by far the best thing I have ever done--the chance to change one child's life and the lives of everyone that child comes in contact with. There's very little else I can think of that is more profound. This little one, she represents hope for her family even though they know they'll never get her back. But this is her chance to break the cycle."

It was news to Suzanne Farley, a director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) that the event posters were calling for "TOUGHER sentences." "These things are done by committee, I wasn't aware that the event was being promoted that way. We are advocates for children in all circumstances. Often parents are drug addicted, so we ask how to help? I am certainly not in favor of tougher sentences, that's not our priority. We work to promote safe, loving permanent home environments. The research is clear, children fare better with biological parents whenever possible."

I asked her about the governor's remedies for CYFD. "She did the obvious thing, the conferring with law enforcement piece, sure. Her measures are a good first start. But my main concern is that she hire competent staff and support them so they don't burn out and turn over. The biggest danger is low staffing. I admire all of them at CYFD, all of their efforts on behalf of the children. But they're in a system that's a tough place to do the quality work needed."

She too was unaware of the DOC's intention to expand the beds in the women's prison in Grants by 39%. 

Maria Jose thanked me for coming and for writing about the event "to honor those who were here, to show their hearts." Of everyone I spoke with she was the only one who thought "TOUGHER sentencing" was appropriate.

As she explained it: "In New Mexico we're advocating for that. So often abusers get just a slap on the hand. We need new legislative tools to fit the crimes. I think the governor is coming to a place where she's ready for that."

Tomorrow Maria Jose travels to her country of origin--Spain-- where an innovative advertising campaign using a lenticular lens was rolled out last year.