In a world where violent images and stories are broadcast nonstop, there are crimes that stand out because they go so shockingly against laws of civilization and against laws of nature. When they are crimes against children, we experience outrage and grief, and we suffer a collective shame at our failure to protect the innocent and most vulnerable among us. When these crimes are perpetrated by a child’s mother, father, uncle or grandmother—the very people we expect to sacrifice anything to protect their child—we don’t want to believe human beings are capable of such vile acts.
I live in New Mexico. Two months ago, a young girl was drugged with meth, raped, strangled, dismembered and set on fire on the eve of her tenth birthday by her mother (who allegedly told investigators that she watched the rape for her own pleasure), her mother’s boyfriend, and his female cousin, released from jail days earlier. In Albuquerque in 2013, 9-year-old Omaree Varela was stomped to death six months after 911 received a 21-minute call from the child begging for help and documenting the abuse he was suffering. His mother was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. In 2002, in Las Cruces, 5-month-old Baby Brianna Lopez died at the hands of her mother, her father, and her uncle—after suffering physical and sexual abuse from the day she was born until the day she died.
Albuquerque reporter Joline Gutierrez Krueger has covered many crimes against children during her career and she and her editors have been accused of sensationalizing for the sake of newspaper sales. In a recent piece, Krueger wrote: “But we are not ghouls or bloodthirsty vultures delighting in the big news story because, hey, it sells papers and elicits clicks on our website….we are horrified like you. Many of us have children. But like the first responders and the officers who were shaken by the carnage in that second-floor apartment…we have a job to do, and so we do it to the best of our abilities. We write the stories. We bear witness.”
We cannot afford to turn away from these extreme cases of violence against children—they happen too often. Lisa Trabaudo, who until 2016 headed up the crimes against children division as Deputy District Attorney, was quoted by Krueger as saying, “Things you could not even imagine in your worst nightmare that people inflict on kids. And when I think I’ve seen it all, we get a new case in even worse than the last one.”
When we bear witness, our outrage allows us to keep our eyes and ears open when what we are seeing and hearing is horrific. The danger of outrage is that it can lead to reactive and ineffective action. Spurred by the latest child murder, New Mexico’s governor has renewed her fight to restore the state’s death penalty. I understand the instinct to seek revenge—but will that do anything to protect hundreds of at risk children in this state? Will it stop the next “worst case we’ve ever seen”? Don’t we need to seek justice instead of vengeance?
For all its amazing assets—cultural diversity, natural beauty, amazing residents, internationally acclaimed research, science and art institutions—New Mexico is a poor state. In 2016 we ranked 50th among States. A study this year found New Mexico has the highest rate of child poverty in the country. We ranked 49th for educational achievement. In 2013 we ranked #2 for highest number of child abuse deaths. That same year we led the nation with the highest percentage of citizens with mental illness according to the federal Behavioral Health 2012 report. In 2008 New Mexico ranked above all other states for illicit drug dependence among persons 12 years and older. Countless studies have shown that poverty sharply increases the risk of domestic violence, sexual and physical abuse, substance abuse. That’s not just true in New Mexico.
But spend a few minutes at your computer, or spend an hour at the library and you will find as many studies that show how small reforms lead to bigger reforms, how ideas put into action lead to inspiration and transformation, and how voices raised in the call for social justice change the future for all of us, especially our children.
While we cannot bring back those children we have failed to protect, we can save other children by strengthening our families, our communities, our support systems and outreach and educational programs, and our world. Channeling our outrage into the energy to focus on creating social justice does save lives. It can also bring healing.
As reporter Joline Gutierrez Krueger puts it: “We write the stories because we must not forget the evil done. We must not turn our faces away from these faces. We must believe such madness happens. Admittedly, we have not written the story in which a new law, a new program, a fervent prayer prevents the next worst case of child abuse. I hope we write that someday.”
I hope so, too. Let’s do it together.