By Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers
A gust of wind blew through the rooms of the abandoned Clovis house, twisting and turning the photos that hung from fishing line above the doorway.
Youth pastor Daniel Gleaton held one still with his hand.
He didn’t really need to, though. The photos were merely blueprints for the house in which he stood. The first stop in a Children, Youth and Families Department tour, the house — filled with piles of clothing, crushed beer cans, and stale food — replicated the living conditions of neglected and abused children across Curry County.
Gleaton was one of about a dozen church leaders and high-profile professionals who spent Wednesday living a day in the life of a foster child.
CYFD foster and adoptive parent recruiter Renee Fitts brought the program to life from an Internet skeleton. Shelved in Wisconsin where it was piloted, the program aims to educate influential community members, mostly church leaders and high-profile city and county officials, the Roswell worker said.
“A lot of our children are waiting for permanency in their lives,” Fitts said. “The purpose of the tour is to raise awareness about child abuse — to find a way to make a difference. It may touch someone’s heart.”
There are nearly 100 foster children in Curry County and another 48 in Roosevelt County, according to CYFD data. In New Mexico, more than 500 children await permanent placement, officials said. That means hundreds of children are “floundering” in the system, Fitts said, with no place to call home.
Before her tours begin, Fitts instructs bus passengers they are now foster children. Each is given an index card, upon it a history of abuse printed. Lost, scared, angry, sad — those were just some of the words passengers used to describe the emotions that role playing, and five tour stops, evoked.
“I represented a small kid, taken from place to place to place,” Gleaton said. “It was good to see it through his eyes.”
Here is a summary of the tour.
Jenny Vega lifted up her shirt to reveal a train of charcoal smudges. The black spots were painted across her back, and they looked eerily like the bruises they imitated.
The petite CYFD investigator played the role of an abused girl during Wednesday’s tour. Bus passengers silently watched as CYFD actors removed her from the house that workers set up to mirror the real-life environments of abused children in Curry County.
“This community has a huge meth problem right now. We are finding more children alone because their parents are out looking for drugs. The abuse is worse than ever before,” CYFD investigator Sheila Worch said.
Sometimes, a police officer accompanies Worch to suspicious homes. But more often than not, she faces the dangers of the job alone. CYFD investigators, she said, often interrupt drug deals; they are verbally assaulted by parents frequently, and many tell stories of dodging physical attacks, one Curry County investigator threatened by a golf club wielding child. But the conditions abused and neglected children endure are much worse, Worch said.
“Most of the time, these kids walk out with us like we are their best friends. Like we’ve known them their whole lives,” Worch said.
For bus passenger Renee Mains, the skit unearthed a torrent of emotion.
“I tried to place myself in that child’s position, like a dream within a dream. The absolute worst day of my life has been nothing like what I perceived in the day in the life of an abused child,” Mains said.
“It bears on my heart and my mind,” the court administrator added. “It was just appalling — that children are forced to live in these types of conditions. You just can’t understand how bad it is, until you see it.”
Child advocacy center
On the wall of The Oasis Children’s Advocate Center hangs a framed photo of kittens. Wedged inside is a video camera. It records the testimony of sexually abused and traumatized children of Curry and Roosevelt Counties.
“I tell the children who come to the center that this is their place,” said Oasis director Hank Baskett, later pointing to one of his client’s drawings. “Thanks for helping me,” the drawing reads, “Thanks a whole lot. Because after I talked about it, I feel better.”
Disclosure, as the drawing suggests, often restores a child’s sense of power, Baskett said. But constantly being prodded to recap events can be harmful.
The center primarily seeks to reduce the number of times a child must relive a trauma, Baskett said. He questions children about the nature of their assault or trauma so that the interview can later be used by police and court officials.
“When children have to keep telling and retelling their story, it leaves them without time to heal,” Baskett said. “(The Oasis) is a safe place for children to tell a horrific story and regain their self esteem.”
It is Mary Colleen Campbell’s job to piece together evidence of sexual abuse. The Plains Regional Medical Center nurse said in October she documented three cases of sexual abuse a day.
The number of patients she sees varies from day to day, month to month, however, the vast majority are children, she said.
The last thing Campbell wants to do, she said, is add a harsh hospital experience to already painful experiences. It is difficult, however, to turn a sterile hospital into an comfortable space.
The purpose of the hospital visit, said CYFD protective service agent Marsha Buesgens, was to show passengers how intrusive the evidence gathering process can be for children.
Campbell, however, strives to lend the process intimacy, accomplished, she said, with simple sensitivity. She often lets children wait in a furnished room, instead of in the tiled reception area. She carefully explains the process, even allowing children to play with evidence collecting equipment. She lobbied to hold examinations in a room with a shower.
“The victim is everything,” Campbell said. “Everything.”
The children Barbara Martin invites into her home aren’t always easy to handle.
“The toughest was a 4-year-old boy… If he didn’t get his way, he would become very violent. He picked up a porta-crib once and threw it against the wall. He would claw and tear at his face until it bled. That was one of our earliest cases,” Martin said.
Martin is a foster mother. The violent boy, he just needed attention, she said nonchalantly. A string of children followed the 4-year-old into the Martin home; she permanently adopted two of them.
Photos of former foster children dot her dresser tops and her walls. The hand prints of children who have passed through the house, captured with paint, cover an oak table.
Signs of loving home are everywhere.
But unfortunately, many children are tugged in and out of Martin’s home, she said. Some are ordered to return to their families, only to be yanked away days later. Others are left in limbo at the Martin residence for years, without an adoptive family.
“I used to think that being a mother was a maternal instinct. But it’s not. It’s a learned instinct,” Martin said. Some mothers, she said, simply seem incapable of nurturing their children.
The Clovis resident said she became a foster mother shortly after she miscarried.
“We spent a couple years being foot loose and fancy free. But we didn’t like that. We wanted to give something back,” Martin said of she and her husband.
The 4-year-old boy who once made life hard, she said, was an anomaly. Most foster children are simply starving for structure, Martin said.
“Kids respond very well to consistency. If you are structured and consistent, there usually aren’t discipline problems,” Martin said.
A judge’s gavel, CYFD officials often pray, is the last stop on a foster child’s path to stability.
The ideal court outcome is the return of children to their biological parent(s), said Clovis attorney Nick Kennedy. But oftentimes parents do not meet the court room requisites. Their homes are still unsafe, or their lifestyles drug riddled, CYFD officials said.
“They love their children. They just don’t know how to parent them — they chose something else over their child. We strongly feel that a child needs permanence. But we can’t wait forever for these parents to get their act together,” CYFD agent Buesgens said.
When a child is unable to safely remain in the custody of their biological parent(s), the court prefers to place them with a relative. If that is not an option, CYFD searches for an adoptive home.
But in Curry County, CYFD officials said less than 20 percent of foster children find permanent homes. Most can be found in group homes; some in foster care.
• • •
They sat mute in their seats. Photographs mounted on cardboard passed from passenger to passenger. The pictures depicted the external marks of abuse — burned faces and fingers, deep bruises, indents from the bristles of a hair brush.
Yet, as those who take the CYFD bus tour learn, a child’s suffering rarely ends once they are rescued from their abusers. Because there is often nowhere for them to go, say CYFD workers.
“There are times,” said CYFD Curry County office manager Sherel Whited, “that I just go home with tears streaming down my face.”