In the days after the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office announced the discovery of Jeremiah Valencia’s body buried along a roadway in Nambé and began releasing details of the horrific abuse they believe he had suffered for perhaps months before he died, it became apparent that New Mexico’s fragmented network of protection for children had failed the boy in numerous ways.
Jeremiah, 13, died in November, authorities say, though the death went unreported until late January. His mother’s boyfriend, Thomas Wayne Ferguson, 42, is accused of fatally torturing him while his mother, 35-year-old Tracy Ann Peña, was in jail.
The case, the latest in a series of heinous, high-profile child killings in the state in recent years by a parent or guardian, revealed gaping holes in the oversight of kids who don’t attend school, raised questions about who ensures a child is in safe care when a parent is incarcerated, spotlighted weaknesses in the probation system and highlighted the need for everyone in the community to step in and report signs of abuse before it leads to tragedy.
State agencies indicate they’ve taken some steps in recent weeks to strengthen the child protection system.
The Children, Youth and Families Department, for instance, has offered hands-on training for scores of police officers on the use of a new web portal that provides quick access to information about troubled families they might encounter — details such as custody disputes, previous allegations of abuse or neglect and concerns about drug use or violence.
The department also has launched campaigns in schools to raise awareness among staff about signs of abuse and how to report concerns. It has been working closely with on-site school liaisons.
S.U. Mahesh, a spokesman with the Department of Corrections, said in an email that starting this month, “our Probation and Parole Division will be partnering up with CYFD Protective Services where they will train our officers on signs of abuse, reporting procedures and assistance that is available for families.”
But one lawmaker who has long pushed for child welfare reforms says the state needs a broader effort — what he calls “the big move” — that brings leaders from every facet of the system to one table rather than relying on a piecemeal approach.
State Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, proposed legislation in 2017 that would have launched an aggressive initiative to scrutinize child abuse homicides — examining every interaction with a slain child that could have led to interventions that prevented the death. The examination would have involved medical professionals, school workers, social workers, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, public defenders, social services providers and others.
The goal of Senate Bill 294, introduced months after the grisly sexual assault and slaying of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in Albuquerque sparked widespread calls for reform, was to dramatically improve the child protection system.
The measure stalled that year, but Padilla said he’ll be revisiting the issue and introducing a new version in the 2019 session.
“We have to do everything we can,” Padilla said. “… When these instances occur, we have to have everybody who ever encountered this issue at one table.”
Attorney General Hector Balderas, who supported Padilla’s legislation in 2017, also will consider new legislative efforts regarding child protections in 2019, if he is re-elected in November, a spokesman said.
Balderas, a Democrat, faces no primary election opponent but has two challengers in the general election, a Republican and a Libertarian.
Jeremiah is an example of the more than dozen children who die in New Mexico each year from abuse or neglect, according to state data. Some of the deaths make headlines and draw outrage — 3-year-old Leland Valdez, who was beaten to death in Pojoaque in 2011 by his mother’s boyfriend; 9-year-old Omaree Varela, who was kicked to death in 2013 by his mother; and Victoria, who authorities say was drugged, raped, strangled and stabbed by her mother’s boyfriend and his female cousin at her home in August 2016, the night before her 10th birthday. Police say her mother watched.
In each of these cases, concerns about the child had been reported to state child welfare officials prior to the death.
“There are multiple others that don’t rise to the news,” Padilla said. “… Somebody has dropped the ball on this matter, or we wouldn’t continue to have these horrendous crimes.”
Jeremiah’s slaying remained a well-kept secret among those in the Nambé household for nearly two months.
It’s unclear why Peña’s two children, Jeremiah and his younger sister, were left in the care of Ferguson — a man with a history of domestic violence — while she was held at the Santa Fe County jail for a couple of days in late November. Ferguson, at the time of Jeremiah’s death, was an absconder from the state’s Probation and Parole Division.
He had been convicted of battering three women in separate cases since 2003.
Just a few days before Jeremiah was killed, records show, a probation division team was searching for Ferguson — but not at the Nambé address he had given his probation officer. That was the home where deputies believe Jeremiah died.
Ferguson’s son, 19-year-old Jordan Nuñez, also was living in the household when Jeremiah was killed. He and Peña face at least a dozen charges in the death, while Ferguson faces 18 counts, including first-degree murder.
Law enforcement and school officials have said Jeremiah didn’t attend school for nine months before his death, a fact that slipped notice amid an inter-district transfer that never happened.
Officials from the West Las Vegas School District said Peña withdrew her son from a middle school there in February 2017, and they were certain she was transferring him to the former Capshaw Middle School in Santa Fe. But Jeremiah never showed up for class.
Lida Alikhani, a spokeswoman for the state Public Education Department, has said the onus of making sure a child attends school falls on school districts and parents. The education department doesn’t have procedures for checking up on children who aren’t enrolled in any school and aren’t registered as home-school students.
The agency keeps records of children whose parents say they are attending home schools, but doesn’t oversee the learning progress of those children.
Asked whether the agency has plans to create its own system of tracking school-age children in the state to ensure they are receiving an education, Alikhani said the agency is “working to improve data collection from districts and charters regarding withdrawn students” and will continue to support the efforts of districts and charters to fulfill their duties under New Mexico’s compulsory school attendance law.
If relatives or neighbors had reported concerns to CYFD that Jeremiah wasn’t attending school, department spokesman Henry Varela said, or fears that he was suffering abuse or neglect, the agency would have been able to investigate and possibly prevented a tragedy.
But no one made that call.
“This is where community involvement is critical,” said Monique Jacobson, secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Neighbors have to look out for one another and make that report, she said. “And report again and again.”
Child deaths under her watch — and those that occurred long before — have prompted her to consider ways to overhaul her agency and ensure better protection of the state’s most vulnerable children, Jacobson said.
“That’s kind of all I think about,” she said. “… We have to strive for continual improvement on all fronts.”
But Jacobson stopped short of pointing to failures or needs at any one agency. “There is no silver bullet,” she said.
Instead, she pointed to efforts by her own agency in the past couple of years: filling vacant positions in the child protective services division to decrease caseloads, improving staff training, preparing for a new data assessment tool, and launching the PullTogether campaign and website — a one-stop shop for reporting abuse, finding available services and learning how to become a foster or adoptive parent.
More than 4,000 people visit the site each month. The initiative has helped build key relationships between providers, Jacobson said, and has eased access to services for struggling families — what she sees as one of the biggest ways to battle child abuse in a state that wrangles with one of the nation’s highest rates of poverty.
“Tragedy occurs when these families are at a breaking point,” Jacobson said.
Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or firstname.lastname@example.org.