By Liana Star
Teens help address New Mexico’s disregarded epidemic of child abuse and neglect.
Editor's note: This article contains sensitive content about child abuse and neglect. To report a suspected case of abuse or neglect, call #SAFE from a cell phone or 1-855-333-SAFE (7233) from a landline; you may remain anonymous. Support is available from Solace Crisis Treatment Center.
I was abused until the age of 12. A plethora of people knew of the abuse: family, friends, police officers, therapists and doctors. In other words, people I thought I could trust.
One of my earliest memories is the day I confided in my therapist about the abuse. I was 7. She convinced me I was making things up. I remember sobbing in her office. She sided with my abuser in court.
At the age of 8, I told my doctor about the abuse at a checkup. I told her I was scared to live in my current household. My abuser was not reported.
I remember being 10 and pleading with my grandfather not to leave me with my abuser. I screamed at him, begging for his help. He left me there.
Two years later, I remember telling police officers my story. Nothing was done to protect me. At the age of 12, I testified in court regarding the abuse. My abuser was neither arrested nor charged.
Child abuse and neglect is the disregarded epidemic of New Mexico. We are ranked 50th in child welfare. This is why I chose to be a part of an organization that is doing something to help protect children in our community.
Court Appointed Special Advocates First Judicial District, or CASA First, was introduced in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties in 1995. CASA First consists of trained volunteers called CASAs who advocate for youth in the foster care system.
CASAs work closely with families to ensure they understand the issues they are facing and the support they require. Unlike social workers, who are typically overwhelmed with cases, CASAs are committed to a single family. That allows them the necessary time to really get to know the children and family members involved. CASAs then are able to communicate to other professionals and help make informed decisions regarding the children’s care.
CASAs create court reports and testify in front of a judge on behalf of the children. Their opinions are held in high esteem by judges due to their familiarity with each case. Because CASAs are volunteers, their only interest is what is truly best for the family.
In 2018, CASA First created a group called CASA Youth Ambassadors with the intention of teaching youth about the gift of service within their community. I joined Youth Ambassadors at the beginning and have been able to participate in a variety of events.
From walking in the Santa Fe Fiesta pet parade to organizing fundraisers, it’s been inspiring to see how much the group has grown these past two years. So far, I’ve had the pleasure of attending events alongside New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil and Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber.
I’ve gained many valuable skills thanks to volunteering for CASA Youth Ambassadors. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, I’ve utilized the public outreach opportunities provided to me. I now feel more comfortable speaking with strangers, as well as introducing CASA First to potential volunteers. In February, I had the honor of presenting an award at the Governor’s Mansion. Speaking in front of that many prominent people made me feel more confident in my own abilities.
More importantly, I’ve become a more empathic person. Before volunteering for CASA Youth Ambassadors, I was ignorant to the realities of our foster case system. I now understand where we stand as a state and what can be done to improve how we protect our youth.
Due to COVID-19, CASA First has been unable to host its usual annual events, forcing our community outreach projects to be unconventional. CASA Youth Ambassadors’ founder Miranda Saint James created the Kindness Rocks Project. This project asks participants to decorate rocks in order to help us spread child protection awareness while respecting social distancing.
Kindness Rocks Project
Here’s how it works.
1) Find and gather river rocks.
2) Wash the rocks and let them dry.
3) Decorate your rocks. You can use acrylic paint, permanent markers, paint pens or any medium of your choosing. (Note: When using a base coat, paint the whole rock in a solid color, but only decorate one side of your rock.)
4) Drop off your rocks at any of our designated drop-off locations:
When CASA First staff receive the rocks, they will then laminate child protection information onto the back, such as the statewide phone number to report child abuse (#SAFE). The rocks will then be distributed by volunteers in public places around Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties. We encourage all ages and skill levels to participate! If you happen to find a rock, we would love for you to share a picture of it on social media with the hashtag #casakindnessrocks.
Our intention is to spread cheer during this challenging time, as well as remind people that there is help available. I have learned that many times child abuse goes unreported because it’s either considered to be normal or because people are afraid to speak up. I think it’s important for others to know that you can report anonymously even if you only suspect a child is being harmed.
COVID-19 has been an extremely stressful situation for most families. People are losing their jobs and public schools will not be providing in-person learning, at least for the first nine weeks, which will be difficult for many parents. Tensions are high this year. Quarantine has created a situation in which abused children are trapped in close proximity with their abusers without any outsiders to report the abuse. In addition, stress is a breeding ground for abuse and people are collectively more stressed now than ever before.
That is why it is so important for us as a community to look out for one another. We need to keep an eye on our own neighborhoods and families as well as utilize the resources available to us. No child should feel afraid in their own home.
Through my experience as a CASA Youth Ambassador, I have discovered a community of people who share the idea that all children deserve love, respect and safety. I invite you to paint a rock, volunteer for CASA First or make a donation so we can continue to ensure that children in New Mexico are protected.
One of our donors, Dion Silva, has generously offered to match all contributions of $100 or more, up to $1,000 total. Donations should be made in honor of CASA Youth Ambassadors.
For more information, visit www.casafirst.org.