- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A New Mexico lawmaker wants to make it mandatory for parents or guardians to receive court-ordered family services when abuse or neglect of a child is suspected.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, said curbing child abuse and neglect is a state priority and there is room for improvement.

“By intervening and requiring parents in abuse cases to seek help, we are adding another layer of protection for our children while at the same time keeping the family together,” she said.

Under the proposed legislation, it would be mandatory for families to receive services in abuse or neglect cases that require intervention but may not rise to the level of removing the child from the home. Those services could include drug or alcohol counseling, parenting courses or anger management classes.

Fajardo said the goal would be to identify any problems and determine the needs of the child and family.

Other lawmakers are proposing to toughen penalties for convicted child abusers and clarify the law that requires people to report suspected abuse or neglect to authorities.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez implemented a series of executive orders and policy changes last year in response to the case of Omaree Varela, a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy who police say was kicked to death by his mother in December 2013.

Police and social workers had investigated prior abuse complaints at the home before the boy’s death and one police visit was never relayed to the state’s child welfare agency.

Synthia Varela initially told police her son injured himself falling off a bouncing toy horse, but later acknowledged getting angry and kicking the child. She has pleaded not guilty to more than 20 charges related to the boy’s death, including child abuse resulting in death.

The Martinez administration’s reforms are aimed at changing the way child abuse and neglect cases are investigated to ensure cases like Varela’s don’t fall through the cracks.

The state Children, Youth and Families Department has been struggling with an overwhelming caseload and the need for more prevention and intervention services statewide. It requested more than $458 million for the next budget year, an increase of more than 7 percent.

As part of their nearly $6.3 billion budget proposals, both the governor and lawmakers are calling for more money for the department. The additional funding would boost the number of case workers and expand family support programs.

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