ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The killings of two young Albuquerque girls spurred lawmakers, law enforcement and local officials on Tuesday to hold a special meeting in hopes of finding ways to prevent domestic abuse and violence in a state that has long ranked as one of the nation’s worst for child well-being.
The death last week of Victoria Martens, whose remains police say were found in her mother’s apartment, was followed on Sunday by the Albuquerque shooting deaths of Cam To and her 11-year-old daughter Nhi Nguyen. The two were gunned down by the mother’s husband before he turned the gun on himself, police said.
“The right response today is to have an action in place that creates the kind of environment where all of our children are safe,” said U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat whose New Mexico district includes Albuquerque. “If this is not the right call to action, then, my god, nothing is.”
Officials with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department and the local public school district indicated at the meeting that drug abuse and poverty are at the root of much of the violence that children in New Mexico’s largest city may face at home.
Law enforcement and others told a panel of city councilors and county commissioners that their departments have expanded prevention programs in recent years to investigate reports of child abuse, and boosted partnerships with public schools and the Children, Youth and Families Department. But limited budgets at every level of government in the state can make it challenging for agencies to prevent cases from falling through the cracks, they said.
Both Victoria’s and Nhi’s cases are the latest in a string of child slayings in New Mexico in recent years that include the 2013 kicking death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela. His case prompted an overhaul of the state agency that investigates child abuse. His mother was sentenced in May to 40 years in prison in the case.
City and county officials said they planned to seek funding for more social workers, and explore solutions for drug treatment, mental health services and child abuse prevention.
The meeting comes after a week of vigils across the state held for Victoria Martens, including a gathering that organizers deemed a birthday event held in her memory on Sunday.
Friends and relatives had planned to celebrate Victoria’s 10th birthday with her the day police found her body, her godmother Laura Bobbs said.
Officers responding to a pre-dawn disturbance that day said in court documents that they found the girl’s dismembered body in the bathtub of an Albuquerque apartment that she shared with her mother. In a criminal complaint, police said Michelle Martens told investigators that Fabian Gonzales, a man she met online, and his cousin Jessica Kelley drugged Victoria before the mother’s boyfriend raped her as she watched.
Victoria was strangled and stabbed, police said. The results of an autopsy report are pending.
Authorities said Gonzales was convicted of child endangerment last year after his arrest for beating a woman while she was driving a car with a child inside it. He was supposed to be monitored by a probation officer and given drug tests but wasn’t because corrections officials say they didn’t receive a judge’s order mandating the supervised probation.
The girl’s mother has no online record of an arrest in New Mexico, and state records showed no prior violent or sexual abuse cases involving Victoria, officials said.
Her mother told police Kelley had been released from jail just days before Victoria’s death and was staying at her apartment.