By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
The front porch is littered with trash, including broken glass, beer cans and other refuse. The paint is peeling, and the bare porchlight bulb hangs from its wiring.
A woman answers the front door in worn jeans and T-shirt, and is verbally combative with Children, Youth and Families Department investigators. They try to explain calmly that they need to talk to about the family’s child, but they are rebuffed by the mother. The father tosses commentary, from his chair, across the littered living room. Finally a sheriff’s deputy steps in, and the woman and her husband agree to allow the investigators and officer into the house.
Once inside, one investigator and the deputy talk to the parents in the kitchen while the other investigator talks with the 6-year-old child. The house is filthy, trash is everywhere as well as dirty clothes, beer cans, overflowing ashtrays and peeling paint.
In the kitchen the sheriff’s deputy notices drugs and a set of scales, possibly for packaging illegal drugs to be sold out in the open.
The CYFD investigator notices there is little fresh food in the house. In a bedroom there are weapons and ammunition. The child has no bed and has been sleeping curled up in the corner of a bedroom with no mattress and just a blanket.
The investigator talking to the child notices bruises on her face, and the child reluctantly shows other bruises on her body. She confides with the investigator that sometimes daddy comes into her room to “help her sleep at night.”
The scene described above was actually from a mock CYFD visit held Thursday in Portales. While it wasn’t real, CYFD officials say every element of the reenactment is played out regularly in Roosevelt County when investigators visit a home where child abuse or neglect is suspected.
A group of community leaders and social workers took part in a bus tour that included the reenactment billed as “A Day in the Life of a Foster Child.”
“From this moment on, you’re going to be a foster child,” CYFD Foster Parent Adoptive Recruiter Renee Fitts said as she briefed the group. “You are now the child who is in your packet.”
In addition to information about the foster care system, each packet contained a profile of a child in the system outlining his or her specific problems. The morning-long tour included stops a child placed into the foster system would experience.
At the child’s “home,” photos taken at actual investigation scenes were hung showing the squalor in some of the houses where children had lived before being removed. Large framed portraits of victims of child abuse and neglect are displayed. The photos and the staged filth served their purpose well as shock value for the visitors, as did the role-players from CYFD as the mother, father and little girl.
“This probably doesn’t speak well of me, but I wanted to pound him (the father),” said Cheri Quinn, a member of the Crimes Review Board for the 9th Judicial District. “I know they were just play-acting. Oddly I felt sorry for the mom.”
Former CYFD investigator Barbara Palantone said she can still remember the smell of the homes she investigated in the 1980s. But living conditions alone don’t necessitate a child’s removal.
“Typically we’re not going to remove a child for a dirty house,” Fitts said. “We’ll give them a timeframe to have it clean.”
For the mock investigation, though, the presence of drugs and absence of food were enough for the deputy to arrest the parents and order the child (played by Clovis CYFD investigator Melissa Hardin) into CYFD custody.
At Roosevelt General Hospital, those on the tour got to see the exam rooms and the interview rooms. They had a chance to ask questions of the SANE (sexual abuse nurse examiner) staff and learn more about the techniques and tools used to collect evidence.
Next stop was the Oasis Safehouse, where Hank Baskett Jr., with the New Mexico Children’s Safehouse Network, jovially greeted the group. The tall, broad-shouldered Baskett is intimidating at first glance because of his size, but turned into a gentle giant as he carefully interviewed the pigtailed child as the role-play continued.
Baskett explained that the safehouse provides a central location where the various agencies involved in a case come together to watch as a child is interviewed by someone with specific training for interviewing children. He said if the child is interviewed at a central location that translates into fewer times she has to relive the trauma and the evidence collected is usually better.
“I take this job very seriously,” Baskett said. “It’s near and dear to me. But I also take people’s lives seriously.”
He said if interviewed correctly the chances of a child lying are remote. But he has interviewing techniques to draw a lie out, so that someone isn’t falsely accused.
At the Roosevelt County Courthouse the group visited the courtroom of Judge Bob Orlick, who handles the majority of juvenile and family cases in the county. He explained his background and philosophy on children coming through the courts and the group was able to ask the judge questions.
“Many of these kids are not model citizens when they’re taken into custody,” Orlick said. “They have a lot of problems to work through.
“All I can say in terms of foster families is God bless ’em. They could use you like another arm.”
In response to a question, Orlick said he believes 80 to 90 percent of the cases he deals with are drug-related.
The final stop on the tour was the home of an actual foster parent, Kelley Alford, who has been caring for foster children for nine years.
In contrast to the home where the tour started, her home was warm and inviting, with pictures of foster children who have stayed at the home, covering the walls of the front room. A prominent sign displays the “House Rules” — “No fussin’. No whining. No back-talking.”
“Every case is unique and different,” Alford said. “Each child requires mending. Doing that (mending) is the challenge. What works for one might not work for another.”
Fitts and CYFD Regional Placement Supervisor Marsha Buesgens say the tour’s goal is to add more foster families. But along the way they hope the tours will give the community a chance to see what’s going on and find ways to help.
This is the fourth tour conducted so far in the region. They hope to do one every other year in each community targeting goverment leaders, civic clubs, teachers, media, daycare providers and church leaders.
“We want just community involvement too,” Buesgens said. “Just people stepping to the plate to do something for these kids.”