New Mexico’s top prosecutor wants to set up a civil rights division to help children in state custody

New Mexico’s top prosecutor is seeking new authority to safeguard the rights of children in state custody amid allegations of inadequate care and protection. Attorney General Raúl Torrez has won the backing of the Democratic-led Legislature in his mission to create a civil rights division in New Mexico — in the spirit, he says, of anti-discrimination work initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice in the late-1950s to desegregate schools in the South. “We have state agencies that unfortunately have had a history of failing to adequately protect children in state custody,” Torrez said this week ahead of a Friday deadline for the governor to authorize — or veto — the civil rights initiative. “Our primary focus would be on the protection of children and particularly vulnerable children who are the victims of child abuse.” NEW MEXICO GOV. GRISHAM SIGNS BILL TO PROTECT ABORTION PROVIDERS Gov. Lujan Grisham expressed mixed feelings Wednesday about the bill, saying it might limit her administration’s leeway to overhaul the state’s lead agency for protecting children from neglect and abuse. “That bill isn’t signed or vetoed and I want (prosecutors) to have every tool,” Lujan Grisham said. “They have these tools already, in my view. … I think the concept is valid.” Lujan Grisham in February announced plans to restructure the Children, Youth and Families Department amid allegations that children were neglected or abused in foster care and indications that foster children have routinely slept in central offices of the overwhelmed agency. Torrez points out that private civil litigation against child welfare agencies can result in financial settlements that don’t openly address civil rights violations or result in institutional changes. “They waive their rights to talk about the litigation in any detail and also to demand large scale corrective action,” said Torrez, the former district attorney for the Albuquerque area who won statewide election in November 2022. MINNESOTA SENATE PASSES ABORTION BILL OPPONENTS CALL ‘MOST EXTREME’ IN NATION He said a civil rights division could initiate investigations and seek broad injunctive relief by court order to address patterns of discrimination or other constitutional violations. The new office would initially employ between five and 10 attorneys in addition to investigators and support staff, also pursuing other civil rights concerns such as consumer and environmental protection, he said. “We are looking and will be looking at applying the law in that way, and … protecting groups that have been historically discriminated against, but also taking it into a more modern space, which is the protection of the civil rights of children,” Torrez said. Torrez highlighted support from Democratic legislators as well as many House Republicans on a 51-13 floor vote in March. Republican state Sen. David Gallegos of Eunice voted against the bill, even while championing other bills aimed at greater accountability at the Children, Youth and Families Department. Gallegos said he worries that anti-discrimination efforts won’t be evenhanded.
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