District attorney spearheading child welfare task force

By Steve Hansen

QCS Managing Editor

If law enforcement, school officials, the Children, Youth and Families Department and others concerned with child welfare issues can get together regularly, children are less likely to get lost in the shuffle.

That’s the thinking behind the child welfare task force 10th Judicial District Attorney Tim Rose is creating in Quay County.

Other agencies have signed on enthusiastically, including Tucumcari Public Schools, Tucumcari Police and CYFD.

From July 2012 to June 2013 — the latest 12-month period information is available — the child abuse rate for Quay County was 31.4 per 10,000 children, two and one-third times higher than the state rate of 13.4 per 10,000 children.

Rose said the task force’s child welfare concerns go beyond abuse and neglect, however. Issues like truancy, helping kids find a stable home life, and health issues like proper nutrition also come into play when a child is having problems, he said.

“We’ve been working on this for months,” Rose said, long before media attention focused on the case of Omaree Varela, 9, Albuquerque, who died at the hands of his own mother after several 911 calls spaced over months were about violence committed against the child. The Varela case, according to media reports, has drawn attention to the need for child welfare agencies to communicate and coordinate.

Rose credits DA’s investigator Matt Montoya with planting the idea for the task force. Montoya had some experience dealing with child abuse situations before he joined Rose’s staff. He discussed the issues he had seen with Rose and the idea of the task force was born, he said.

“We always needed a protocol,” Montoya said, “so people who deal with child welfare issues need to be trained to know what to do.”

Agencies need to share information and need to know the functions of other agencies, he said, “so we won’t have kids falling through the cracks.”

Tom Cassidy, who supervises child protective services for the Tucumcari office of CYFD, agrees.

“The more agencies and entities we have involved in this effort, the less likely it is that kids will fall through the cracks,” he said. “I’ve never seen a district attorney be so proactive when it comes to kids.”

The task force has progressed beyond “just talking about the issues,” he said. “We’re talking about specific details and specific cases.”

The task force has also agreed on ways to maintain the strict confidentiality that children’s casework requires, he said, so they can interact effectively on cases involving kids.

Aaron McKinney, superintendent of Tucumcari Public Schools, said, “It’s great to know we have a resource like the task force.”

In situations, such as frequent truancy, in which teachers and others who work with school students are looking for help, “we can get on the phone” quickly with the right people from the right agencies,” McKinney said.

David Johnson, assistant superintendent, said, “We can get on the same page and get something done.”

“I commend Mr. Rose,” McKinney added. “He’s done an outstanding job of working with the schools. Now we (workers with several agencies) can get together to help a child.”

Communication is the key, school and police officials agreed, and the task force is creating stronger links among the agencies, whose job it is to deal with troubling situations involving children.

It used to be that “no one knew what happens,” when a child’s case was handed off from one agency to the next, Tucumcari Deputy Police Chief Pete Rivera said. “Now we’re getting feedback.”

There is improved communication among the agencies now because of the task force, he said.

For instance, he said, “If a kid is acting out, it would be nice to know that this is not his or her first referral for that problem. We need to know among all of us what we’re dealing with.”

While Rivera said the task force will help “derail child abuse and truancy,” he said, it is helping police understand that punitive enforcement is not always the answer. Sometimes, he said, it’s better to deal with family problems involving children through home visits and counseling.

Cassidy said when CYFD is called to intervene in a situation in which abuse or neglect is suspected, the usual outcome involves counseling. Only one intervention in 10, he said, results in a child being removed from a home.

“We believe that families should stay together whenever possible,” he said, “We believe that the best place for a child to get help is at home.”

Rose said he would like police agencies to dedicate some resources, such as half of one officers time, to the task force. Rivera said that is unlikely.

“We have only 11 officers to cover the city 24/7, seven days a week,” he said. “We really can’t spare officers for special detail. We’ve got to look at the big picture.”

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