Desiree Terry remembers the pain of being pulled through the foster care system as a child in New Mexico. Her parents struggled with drug abuse and spent years in and out prison, so she was sent to live with her grandparents, who loved her and kept her safe. Her childhood was set on a stable course. The system had worked as intended.
Now more than ever, she knows that she was one of the lucky ones.
Terry confirmed this month that she and her boyfriend, Raymond Hernandez, a 29-year-old who was accused of molesting her daughter and another young girl at their home in mid-January, were serving as foster parents to her two young relatives at the time of the alleged abuse.
“We got custody of them in October. We had them up until a couple days after the incident happened,” Terry said in a phone interview. “It’s awful because [they] have been through so much already.”
Documentation provided by the biological parents of the foster children confirms that the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department placed the two young boys, who are both under 10 years old, in Terry’s Peñasco home in October.
Before the kids were placed with her, Terry learned that her relative and his wife might have been struggling with drug abuse and couldn’t find steady employment. They were trying to raise the boys in a camper trailer on a property in Costilla, a residence CYFD deemed unsafe for the children.
She knew better than most that the foster care system was an imperfect one. But she had no reason to believe the boys would be leaving a perhaps difficult situation and entering a worse one.
Terry and Hernandez applied to take the kids. Terry said she and Hernandez had dated off and on for years and have a child together.
For months after they began fostering the boys there were no signs of trouble. Terry and the parents of the children all felt comfortable with the temporary situation.
Then things suddenly took a turn.
Terry said she was devastated when her teenage daughter and another girl told her Hernandez had molested them early the morning of Jan. 12. She said she immediately called emergency dispatch to report what had happened.
The Taos County Sheriff’s Office took the call and launched an investigation that yielded evidence of the alleged abuse, court documents indicate.
A grand jury indicted Hernandez Jan. 31 on one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor, one count of battery and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Evidence in two other cases filed later in January alleged Hernandez may have also raped Terry’s 19-month-old daughter and a 6-year-old girl who lives at a residence nearby in Peñasco. While those cases were later dismissed, there is an option available for the state to refile them in the future.
“It feels like I’m being punished for calling the cops”
Two days after the abuse was reported and Hernandez was taken to jail, Terry said her two young relatives were removed from the home and taken to live with another family in Taos. To her, it was another difficult transition she knows has taken its toll on the two children, as well as her own.
“My kids have been through so much,” Terry said. “And then to be ripped apart from each other, that was awful. It feels like I’m being punished for calling the cops, you know what I mean?”
Terry said she has also been stunned by the court’s decision to release Hernandez on house arrest to his sister in Questa, who has 10 children of her own.
“He shouldn’t be allowed around children,” Terry said.
The mother of the foster children, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity, said she doesn’t know for certain whether or not her sons were abused by Hernandez. She said the results of their examinations with a sexual assault nurse haven’t come back yet.
She first contacted The Taos News via email on Feb. 14 by way of a lengthy letter that expressed outrage at what had happened. She said that she had never trusted Hernandez, and called him “a monster.”
If she was living with one, Terry said, it didn’t become clear until the morning of Jan. 12.
She began an on-again, off-again relationship with Hernandez years ago, with lengthy periods of separation, but she said that was never because he had hurt her, or gave any indication he might hurt a child.
“We never argued,” she said. “He never hit me. It wasn’t like that, you know?”
There had been rumors
Terry said her grandparents were also stunned when reports of the abuse surfaced this year.
He was a familiar, friendly face around her relatives’ home, Terry said. She said he would go to assist them with yardwork and would take out their trash.
There had been rumors, though.
Terry said some people had mentioned in the past that Hernandez could be dangerous, but she never saw evidence that supported those claims, she said.
“We lived in Costilla and Questa and people talk, but no one ever came up to me and said, ‘He did this – why are you with him?’” she said. “Nobody had ever said those things and he had always denied them, and those things never came up ever again until now.”
But since Hernandez was accused of molesting the teenage girls this year, she said at least two other people have come forward to say Hernandez abused them, too, when they were young. She would not identify the alleged victims, partly because she believes they might be making contact with law enforcement.
Her focus has returned to her three girls, whom she said have all been traumatized by the abuse and are now in therapy.
So, too, are the two young foster children.
They meet with their parents for an hour each week in a secure room at the CYFD office in Taos. The visits are closely monitored.
Only the children can speak about the alleged abuse that happened at the Peñasco home, if they choose to, but they rarely do, their mother said.
“All they’ve told us is that they know something bad happened and that he’s not their Uncle Raymond anymore,” she said.
She believes CYFD should have seen red flags during Hernandez’s application process to care for the children.
But prior to the abuse allegations, the Questa man had only minor criminal offenses on his record in New Mexico, with nothing to indicate child abuse – sexual or otherwise.
The biological parents of the foster children say the CYFD foster care process was executed poorly and at a dizzying pace. They said the allegations made against them are mostly false, and that court hearings flew by with little opportunity to present evidence in their defense.
They say they’ve been tasked with finding steady jobs and a home CYFD agents deem acceptable to house their children. The parents said those are big challenges on their own, but lacking a vehicle, the time and the money to keep up with other CYFD appointments are also obstacles.
Citing laws that shield the agency from nearly all public information requests, Kathleen Hardy, a CYFD public information custodian, said she could not respond to questions regarding the foster home in Peñasco or the application process Terry and Hernandez underwent to qualify with the organization.
“Unfortunately, most of the information you are inquiring about … is confidential,” Hardy wrote in her response.
Calls for changes at CYFD
Tripp Stelnicki, the recently hired director of communications for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a former reporter at The Santa Fe New Mexican, said CYFD is in the midst of a transition due to the change in administration.
That shift has come with a desire to improve the agencies services and how they are administered.
Early this year, Gov. Grisham appointed Brian Blalock, a former lawyer who had worked in the San Francisco Bay area, as the new head of CYFD. He has been charged with overhauling the organization, which has been criticized over the years.
According to the agency’s most recent annual report, CYFD case workers placed 4,650 New Mexico children in foster care for any length of time last year throughout the state. Of those, 1,932 left foster care, with 69 percent reunified with their natural parents, 20 percent who were adopted and 4 percent who were emancipated, an option once a child turns 18.
In Taos County, 419 child abuse and neglect cases were investigated by CYFD in 2018, with 115 that proved to be substantiated, according to the same report.
Stelnicki reemphasized the “strict rules” which protect CYFD from commenting publicly regarding alleged abuse in a foster or home, or regarding how the organization finds a specific home acceptable in the first place.
He added that “CYFD, when made aware of concerns about an untenable or unacceptable foster care situation, acts as quickly as it possibly can.
“At the same time,” he continued, “CYFD recognizes when and where they can do better and, especially under new leadership, is constantly evaluating improvements to [policy] and procedure to ensure children are safe and secure.”