Accident or adult negligence?

Tonya Garner: Freedom Newspapers

A Portales toddler crawled out his open apartment door on Oct. 4.

Police said Dominic Roy’s uncle was on a couch, 15 feet away. His mother was in another room, but apparently neither adult saw the 10-month-old leave the apartment and he fell nearly 10 feet to the sidewalk. The boy was hospitalized for more than two weeks with a fractured skull.

A tragedy, all agree. But was it criminal? Police in Portales say yes. Derek Parker, the boy’s uncle, has been charged with abandonment abuse of a child.

The third-degree felony charge carries a maximum punishment of three years in jail on conviction.

Legally, “child abuse” has a broad definition in New Mexico — knowingly, intentionally or negligently causing or permitting a child to be placed in a dangerous situation.

So how do law-enforcement officials decide when an adult is criminally responsible for a child’s injury or death?

It’s a “gray area,” Clovis Police Lt. Jim Schoeffel said. “We take it case by case.”

• • •

Last year, Clovis police responded to three dozen calls in which child abuse was reported “in progress.” Officials estimate 162 eastern New Mexico children are victims of child abuse each year, including children who are victims of neglect.

But clearly parents and guardians are not usually criminally negligent when a child has an accident — even when the accident ends in death.

At least two children have died in Clovis in recent months after leaving the supervision of their guardian.

A 3-year-old drowned July 13 in Clovis’ Potter Park Pool. The child’s grandmother said she is uncertain how he gained entrance to the pool without adult supervision.

On Nov. 6, a 20-month-old boy died when he was struck by a neighbor’s vehicle. Police said the toddler had gotten out of his residence when his mother was taking out the trash.
Neither of those accidents has been considered criminal by police.

Why is the Parker case different in Portales?

Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry said the department’s decision to charge Parker wasn’t an easy one.

“We typically look at the degree of negligence,” Berry said. “We were at that apartment for quite some time in this investigation.”

The Portales infant’s mother was not charged in connection with the case. Kristen Roy said she believes her baby’s injuries were the result of “an accident” and not criminal.
“The door wasn’t intentionally left open,” she has said.

Parker has not returned calls seeking comment. His case has a court date set for Wednesday.

Matt Chandler, the 9th Judicial District Attorney who prosecutes felony crimes in Clovis and Portales, declined to comment on the Parker case.

• • •

Clovis resident and foster mother Donna Martin said it is common to see unsupervised children around the region.

Martin said she believes a child under the age of 5 should always be in a guardian’s line of vision. “A child under the age of 5 should never be left unattended,” Martin said.

Martin raised her biological children before deciding to become a foster parent eight years ago. “I had so much, so I wanted to give back,” she said on her decision to take in needy children.

She said she has cared for many children who have been taken out of situations where the parent was just unable to care for them correctly. “If a person wasn’t nurtured and put first by their parents,” Martin said, “then it doesn’t come naturally to them to nurture their children.”

Martin said she believes younger parents and people of low income are more apt to put their children into a dangerous situation. She said parents often lack skills to keep children safe and don’t know to seek out resources available to them. “I think people are too ashamed to ask for help sometimes too,” Martin said.

“Charging parents with a crime is not going to solve this problem,” Martin said. “Good parenting classes are the answer.”

• • •

Patty Beckwith is a stay-at-home mother of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old.

“It really bothers me when people don’t watch their kids,” Beckwith said.

Beckwith said she considers herself an “overprotective” mother. According to Beckwith, she has worked hard to create “systems” for every situation.

“At the store, they are either in the cart or holding onto the cart.” she said. “At the playground, if they wander out of my line of sight, I call their name.”

She said her children have been taught to respond to her voice immediately.

Tamara Berkley said it is hard to judge what constitutes child endangerment. She said she was previously employed as a social worker in the Dallas area for five years before moving to Clovis.

“When a child is physically abused it usually leaves marks, which are easily identified.” Berkley said. “Neglecting or unknowingly endangering a child doesn’t leave any physical marks, and that’s scary.”

Berkley said it is almost impossible for a state to mandate to a parent the right way to raise a child. “Unless there is obvious physical or sexual abuse,” Berkley said, “then who’s to say what is right or wrong?”

Berkley said she feels a parent should not be punished “for turning her back at the wrong moment.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Berkley said. “It is just unfortunate when a child is hurt or killed because of it.”

Additonal Information
Parenting classes are available at the following locations:
Hartley House: 762-0050
Assurance Counseling Services: 763-2287

If you suspect someone is abusing a child, contact:
Clovis Police Department: 911

For information on child abuse or services related to children contact:
The Oasis: 769-7732
CASA: 769-3227