The teenage girl, discovered by police at a Santa Fe motel, wasn’t talking.
Officers believed she had been forced into prostitution, but she wouldn’t tell her story. Like many sex trafficking victims, she was too afraid of retaliation from those exploiting her to turn them in, recalled María José Rodríguez Cádiz, executive director of the Solace Crisis Treatment Center.
Officers brought the girl down to the south-side treatment center, where staff tried twice to coax her into a room where they could conduct a formal interview. The girl wouldn’t budge.
City police detectives decided to just sit with the girl and talk with her, getting to know her situation, Cádiz said. They learned a lot in those hours: “She had no personal belongings with her. They were left at the hotel. She had not had a sexual assault exam. She was concerned about being pregnant.”
The detectives retrieved the girl’s belongings, and before long, she agreed to a sexual assault exam.
The 2013 case, Cádiz said, resulted in the arrest of a trafficking suspect in Albuquerque and the rescue of other victims.
It is one of many successes in a 15-year collaboration between the Santa Fe Police Department and the treatment facility — where specially trained detectives in an embedded unit investigate some of the worst crimes imaginable, and social workers and mental health counselors strive to help the victims recover.
“It takes a very unique approach: creative, patience, time, training,” Cádiz said, “so you don’t go the wrong way, you don’t push the wrong way.”
A city police department unit has been based at Solace since 2004. Initially, it was tasked with investigating sex crimes against children, child abuse and neglect cases, child pornography, and human trafficking. Two years ago, it expanded to begin investigating rape and sexual assault of adults as well and took on a new name: the Special Victims Unit.
The six-detective unit has been bolstered in recent years; still, the officers said they can hardly keep up with an increasing caseload. The center handles hundreds of cases each year.
Led by Sgt. Amanda Montaño, a former patrol sergeant tapped last month to head the unit, detectives work alongside Solace’s mental health advocates to ensure they are responding appropriately to crime victims who have suffered trauma. As a result, cases often proceed more slowly than those involving other types of crimes, officers said, explaining it takes time to build trust with a victim who has been traumatized.
“If you rush something through, and they still aren’t ready to give you everything,” said Lt. David Webb, who previously headed the unit, “then you don’t have the whole story to take it to trial.”
Anthony Guerrero, a senior detective with the Special Victims Unit, agreed that such cases require patience.
“Once they get that confidence, that trust — wow, it opens up the doors,” he said. “And then we just take it slowly. Each case is so different.”
Part of Webb’s work has been to establish better communication between police and state prosecutors at the District Attorney’s Office about where a sensitive case stands and when it might be ready to proceed.
Webb said the Special Victims Unit has developed into a successful operation because of partnerships, both within the Solace Crisis Treatment Center and outside its doors, with other law enforcement agencies and family service organizations that address victims’ needs.
The unit’s case “solvability” rate — which Webb defines as a combination of successful prosecutions and positive outcomes for child victims in recovery — is above the national average, he said.
What that might look like, he said, is a child enrolled in counseling, “and their behavior is changing, they’re coming back to normal. They’re starting to communicate better, or they’re starting to produce better work at school. They’re starting to come back to who they were. That’s success.”
He spoke of a 2015 case involving a woman with children but no job or driver’s license. A master driving instructor at the police department, Webb took her out to the state Department of Public Safety’s driving track.
“We spent a good day there out on the track, and she was having a blast,” Webb said. “Just empowering her and letting her know, ‘You can do this. You can be the person you want to be.’ And she did it.”
Santa Fe police Chief Andrew Padilla lauded the collaboration between his agency and Solace. “The crimes that these detectives investigate are very personal, and it helps victims get back on their feet,” he said.
Last week, the city’s Public Safety Committee voted in favor of renewing a lease deal with Solace, as well as a professional services agreement that allows for coordination of domestic violence and sexual assault services.
Solace, which operates on a $1.4 million budget primarily funded by the state, is the primary provider of sexual assault counseling and support services in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties. It employs licensed psychotherapists, bilingual forensic interviewers, victims advocates, and violence-prevention educators who work with schools and community groups. Part of their work focuses on immigrant and transgender populations.
Sexual assault nurse examiners with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center also work at the facility.
“The idea was to provide for survivors of sexual assault and other violent crimes a space that was more focused on trauma, and more knowledgeable, trained and capable of responding to victims of violent crimes, than maybe a hospital could,” Cádiz said.
The center sees about 3,000 reports a year, including those that come directly to the Special Victims Unit, referrals from the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, and walk-ins.
Like police, Cádiz cited a rise in cases handled at the center — in particular, crimes involving sexual and physical abuse of children.
In the first three-quarters of the current fiscal year, she said, the center has handled 236 cases of child sexual or physical abuse. In the same period last year, the number was 208, she said. The increase was more than 26 percent.
Each month, detectives average seven to 10 new tough cases — a job that can have an emotional toll.
Before Webb headed the unit, he said, its detectives would burn out in months. But in the past five years, the unit has lost only one detective, to retirement.
Part of the unit’s protocol, initiated by Webb, is mandatory self-care, which includes team-building exercises. Detectives also are encouraged to take frequent breaks during the day — some get out of the office and go running — and they have access to professional counseling.
“I think one of the big things coming into this unit is watching their mental health and learning who they are as individuals,” Montaño said.
“We, as police officers, we just deal with this so often,” she said, “that we forget that this is very traumatizing. It’s not normal to see a baby deceased like that. It’s something we signed up for, but it’s not something that the human brain is ready to experience, and we experience it a lot.”
Correction, June 4, 2019
This story story has been amended to reflect the follow correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited sexual assault nurse examiners as being employed by the Solace Crisis Treatment Center. The nurses are actually staff of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center who work at the site.