Joline Gutierrez Krueger: News of teen mom sparks reader debate

·5 min read

Feb. 10—It's not surprising that a column about Nancy Grace, babies in dumpsters and the endless debate over when a teenager becomes an adult would elicit rigorous feedback.

So, yes, I'm not altogether surprised at the number of comments I've been wading through since Saturday when I wrote about turning down an appearance on Grace's show to discuss the case of a Hobbs high school senior who says she panicked when she unexpectedly gave birth Jan. 7 and made the horrific choice to toss the infant in a dumpster.

Grace, I predicted — and, as it turns out, rightly so — would show Alexis Avila, 18, no mercy, have no care about what had brought the young woman to do such a thing, discuss no ideas about what should be done to prevent other unexpectedly expectant young mothers from committing the same travesty.

But I saw Avila as confused, immature, ignorant, frightened and just 11 weeks into her 18th year and living in Lea County, which has the sixth-highest teen birth rate in the state and where the nearest Planned Parenthood is more than 100 miles away in Texas.

I also saw Avila's case as a shocking admonition that we have not done a good job of educating the public, especially young people, about our state's safe haven law.

The law, variations of which are enacted in every state and on the books in New Mexico since 2006, would have allowed Avila to give up her newborn to a hospital, health care worker, law enforcement officer or first responder within 90 days of birth without fear of criminal prosecution.

Many of you agreed with me.

"I just think it's sad when a young girl has no place to turn. No one to tell her what to do when this happens," reader Jo wrote. "I don't see her as a criminal. I see her as a desperate naive young woman. Not that this isn't a horrible act — it is. But perhaps she saw this as her only option. I know my own parents would have literally killed me if I had gotten pregnant as a minor. I was always terrified of them. So I can understand how she may have been feeling."

But some of you saw Avila's youth and presumed naiveté as no excuse or explanation for what she did.

"I'm sorry, but I do not feel bad for her," reader Jen wrote. "A simple Google search would have prevented the situation she is in."

Maybe. But she'd have to know the term "safe haven." I do, and searching wasn't as fruitful as you might think.

The response that did surprise me came from members of an out-of-state organization that purports to have expertise on safe haven awareness among younger folks.

From the start, they took me to task, apparently misreading Grace's condemning tone on Avila as my own.

"Why are you using scorn and hatred on Albuquerque teen?" was the subject line of their email.

This, in spite of my column's headline "Focus on Safe Haven laws, not scorn for teen."

They insisted they had read the column — three times, no less. Yet they had completely missed the point and mischaracterized Avila as an Albuquerque teen, not a Hobbs teen.

"Good luck with the next dozen newborn abandonments in NM," one particularly vicious email read.

They also castigated Grace, which is understandable. Less understandable was their attack of Dr. Alan Blotcky, an Alabama psychologist who appeared on Grace's show and felt her wrath when he attempted to explain that Avila's age should be factored in when discussing her behavior.

The email writers also went after acting New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase, whom I mentioned in my column for reminding New Mexicans about safe haven, calling it a "rarely used but critical law."

Why were the emailers so angry at us?

Because we're old.

Too old, they raged, to reach Gen Zs and millennials about the safe haven law.

"You are promoting failure because you are not promoting Gen Z and millennial spokespeople, influencers and proper demographic marketing," they wrote. "(People in their 60s) have NOTHING to do with safe haven laws. Nothing!"

On it went like that — 16 emails from them in all, from sunrise Saturday to past noon Sunday.

Had these bellicose, age-biased folks attempted to have a civil discussion with me they might have found that I agree with them, for the most part.

In more diplomatic discourses I have read, they have said that to reach younger folks about safe haven laws the message has to come from younger folks and in venues they inhabit.

"We never let officials promote the law. No 16-year-old cares what legislators think," one of the organizers told a newspaper that is not the Journal. "We get into the culture of 13-, 14-, 16- and 17-year-olds by using young people and making it normal to discuss the safe haven law. It's standard demographic marketing."

The group recommends avoiding using old faces (ouch!), old voices, suits, uniforms and podiums and instead suggests employing teen influencers and radio DJs to promote the law in the media, online and music festivals. Avoiding images of babies is also key, the group says, because "young women see it as a problem that needs to be solved, not as a baby."

I don't know if these email writers think that caustic rhetoric is the way to influence old folks like me. (Hint: It's not.) But this seems more a case of right message, wrong messenger.

Let's hope that what happened last month in Hobbs is what finally influences us old folks to educate and encourage young folks to connect with young folks to spread the word about safe haven laws.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com.