A Prosecutor’s Purpose
Last month, my office hosted the inaugural Southwest Crimes Against Children Conference to bring together representatives from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, child and victim advocates, social workers and members of the court in a collaborative conference setting to share best practices and knowledge, receive training in new aspects of the law, investigative techniques and protocols and prosecutorial approaches to improve prosecution and judicial handling of crimes against children in New Mexico.
The conference was free and open to all who work directly with child victims of crime, especially those who participate in the prosecution and investigation of these crimes.
To fund the conference, we applied for and received funds from the Children Youth and Families Department and New Mexico Crime Victim Reparation Commission. It is our hope and desire that we continue to receive funds to hold this conference annually.
The conference was conceived from a career-long passion for helping bring justice to children who have been victims of crime. In my 25-plus year long career specializing in prosecuting these crimes, I have always eagerly shared the knowledge I have gained with prosecutors, law enforcement and other professionals.
The conference was intended as another platform to share this knowledge and experience as well as that of other state and national experts. These cases require specialized knowledge, skills and extraordinary commitment from each of the professionals who deal with these cases.
I have learned and experienced the value of a multidisciplinary team approach to properly investigate, prosecute and assist the child and his/her family dealing with the aftermath of abuse.
As a first-year effort, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of who or how many would attend. We had hoped for 200 attendees, and we ended up with about 300. Also, to our pleasant surprise, the 300 were almost equally spread between prosecutors, law enforcement and those working in various aspects of victim advocacy, which was perfect in that we had designed the conference to include study tracks specific to each as well as programs that applied to all.
Some highlights from the two-day conference include our keynote speaker, Victor Vieth, from the Zero Abuse Project addressing the five obstacles that prevent us from ending child abuse and looking at the sweeping changes now taking place in our child protection systems that will significantly reduce and eliminate child abuse over the next three generations.
Mr. Vieth also taught two other overflowing sessions looking at how corroborating evidence is always present but often missed, and another looking at the importance of effective strategies and themes for opening statements and closing arguments in child abuse cases. The multidisciplinary panel and lively Q & A with the audience included the presiding judge of the Children’s Court, New Mexico’s only Native American district court judge, the Honorable Catherine Begaye, Michelle Aldana, the statewide director of forensic services for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Services, Detective Mark Munro, Victor Vieth and myself.
One of the highly-attended sessions was by psychologist Dr. David Lisak, “Taking Care of Ourselves in the Face of Our Exposure to Trauma,” which focused on the short- and long-term impact of “secondary trauma” among professionals whose work exposes them to crimes against children. One person in that session said, “I had no idea how much I needed this until I sat down to listen in this room.”
The conference also addressed changes in the laws. There were classes on forensic interviewing, working with court facility dogs and the benefits to victims and a class presented by Jolene Holgate, of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, which addressed the importance of culturally centered advocacy when working with Native children and their families within the criminal justice system.
We are pleased with the outcome of our first conference and already working to obtain funds for and plan the next one. Important issues were raised, ideas floated and professional collaborations were forged toward improving investigations, prosecution and judicial handling of crimes against children in our state and the reduction of the additional trauma that comes from the criminal justice process for young victims.
The conference was a good step towards ending child abuse in our state, but the fight must continue until all child abuse is eradicated and I will continue the fight as long as I am able.
(Barbara Romo is district attorney for the 13th Judicial District, which includes Valencia, Sandoval and Cibola counties.)