EDITORIAL: CYFD absent, again, in gruesome death of disabled child

Jun. 14—The death of a severely disabled Albuquerque girl is one of the worst cases of child neglect we've seen.

And it could have, should have been prevented.

The 16-year-old, ME in court records, died in a filthy, toddler-sized bed from suspected malnourishment, maltreatment, lack of medical care and inadequate supervision.

Detectives say the girl, who was blind and communicated through moaning and hand gestures, was so emaciated she appeared to be about 10 years old. Detectives said the South Valley apartment was so filthy with spilled food, feces and trash that their shoes stuck to the floor and they had to fight the urge to vomit. Four other children who lived in the home have been placed in CYFD custody.

Doctors say ME was already dead by the time her mother, 32-year-old Doraelia Loera Espinoza, took her to the hospital May 3. ME had maggots in her body, indicating she had been dead for some time.

Espinoza admitted to detectives she left ME in the care of one of the girl's younger sisters and hadn't changed her diaper, fed her or even seen her daughter in a week, even while being home. Espinoza was arrested May 4 and charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death. She remains in the Metropolitan Detention Center.

According to police reports, Espinoza was investigated seven times by the state's Children, Youth and Families Department prior to ME's death.

Three cases, dating back to 2016, involved allegations of inadequate hygiene and clothing, educational neglect and inadequate shelter and were substantiated. CYFD closed the investigation in 2019 after an investigator said ME was wearing appropriate clothing and appeared clean.

Allegations of medical neglect and inadequate clothing resurfaced in June 2020 and were not substantiated. CYFD was not investigating Espinoza when ME died.

Asked if CYFD has a policy of periodic check-ups of high-needs children in instances where there have been prior investigations, CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst said instead "we connect them with community services and supports to be successful without our involvement. Community partners provide the ongoing services that families need in the long term."

In other words, no. CYFD apparently doesn't track children in these circumstances. Perhaps a parent/caregiver with several substantiated cases should warrant status checks?

To compound things, ME's mother said a residential school in Alamogordo for special needs children sent the girl home because she was too difficult to care for. ME later registered at a high school in Albuquerque but had more than 40 absences last school year. Was that on APS' radar? And did the district loop in CYFD?

May was a bad month for CYFD. In addition to ME's death, juvenile probation officers who work for CYFD recommended a 14-year-old boy who allegedly brought a loaded gun to Volcano Vista High School on May 24 not be arrested. Police followed the "low risk" recommendation and released the boy to a guardian, outraging many in the community.

Pursuant to the state's Children's Code, CYFD has emphasized keeping a family together whenever possible. But ME's death and others plus the teen's release show why those decisions need to be backed up by an investigation.

A spokesperson for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's re-election campaign says the governor has implemented reforms such as the new Office of Children's Rights. And CYFD has made progress in recent years, reducing front-line vacancy rates by half, completing more neglect reports on time and increasing kinship placements.

Still, tragic cases like ME's can't be considered one-offs. Add ME to the heart-breaking list that includes James Dunklee Cruz, 4; Omaree Varela, 9; Leland Valdez, 3; Izabellah Montano, 4 months; and BreAndra Peña, 17 months. Once again a child that had multiple contacts with the agency has died in a gruesome way.

We reiterate our plea to the governor to take command of CYFD to ensure our state's most vulnerable children actually have someone in their corner.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.