Governor proposes fix to child abuse reporting law

November 15, 2013 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Susana Martinez said Thursday she’ll ask the Legislature to fix a legal loophole created by a recent court decision narrowing who must report suspected cases of abuse and neglect.

The governor’s target is a [auth] ruling by the state Court of Appeals last month that only 10 categories of people, including physicians, nurses and teachers, must contact authorities about suspected child abuse.

Martinez disagreed with the court’s interpretation of the law, and said she’ll ask the Legislature to make clear that every person is required to report suspected abuse.

“It’s disappointing. It’s misguided, and it’s dangerous for kids who can’t report child abuse themselves and need adults to step in and to help keep them safe,” Martinez said of the court ruling in remarks to a meeting of officials from state child protection agencies across the country.

When she was district attorney, Martinez prosecuted members of a Las Cruces family for not reporting the abuse of a 5-month-old girl, Brianna Lopez, who died in 2002. The child, who became known as Baby Brianna, had been sexually assaulted. Her injuries included skull fractures and other broken bones, numerous bruises and more than a dozen human bite marks on her face and body.

The child’s father and uncle were convicted of multiple charges, including child abuse resulting in death and criminal sexual penetration of a minor. The girl’s mother also was convicted of several counts, including negligently permitting child abuse resulting in death.

Martinez said she successfully prosecuted another uncle and a grandmother for failing to report the abuse. Under the recent court decision, the governor said, such prosecutions wouldn’t be possible.

At issue in the ruling was a New Mexico law that states suspected abuse must be reported by “every person, including a licensed physician … a law enforcement officer … a school teacher” and seven other categories of professionals. The court said only those listed professionals had an obligation to notify authorities of possible abuse and neglect — not everyone in the state.

Attorney General Gary King plans to ask the state Supreme Court to review the Appeals Court decision. But Martinez said the law should be clarified immediately by the Legislature rather than wait for months for a ruling by the state’s highest court. The Legislature meets in January for a 30-day session.

Martinez said the Baby Brianna case illustrated the problems caused by the court’s ruling.

“This child was kept at home so that no one would see her full of bruises, and so there was no one under this new court decision that would have been mandated to report her abuse because she was in hiding,” said Martinez.

David Sanders of Casey Family Programs, a foundation that focuses on improving child welfare systems, attended the meeting and said he agreed that the loophole should be fixed.

“Being able to look beyond the professional mandated reporters to all citizens being reporters is critical,” Sanders said after the governor’s remarks.

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