The 7-year-old girl was routinely absent from her school in Albuquerque, New Mexico — sometimes for days, sometimes for as long as a month.
When she did make it to school at Lew Wallace Elementary, the girl was often exhausted, her teacher said. She would nod off in the middle of class and tell her teacher it was because she hadn’t slept much, according to a criminal complaint.
“Mom made me hustle last night,” the girl once told her teacher and principal to explain her sleepiness, according to the complaint.
That and other indications of abuse had been been cropping up as far back as May 2017, the complaint said.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But the girl and her 8-year-old brother stopped going to school altogether March 20 — and it wasn’t until April 24 (after state agents entered the children into the missing and endangered persons database) that authorities finally tracked down the girl and her brother and took them from their biological mother, authorities said.
Once investigators interviewed the 7-year-old girl, she shared alarming details of her home life, police said: Her parents would take her to “secret parties,” which were actually strip clubs. Her mother, who the girl said liked to get drunk on “Fireball,” would hit the girl when she got mad, the complaint said. And her father had been forcing her to perform sex acts on his “friends” in exchange for drugs, according to the complaint.
“I keep saying I don’t want to, but he forces me to,” the girl said, according to state authorities.
The father — James Stewart, 37 — was arrested Wednesday on felony charges of human trafficking, criminal sexual contact of a minor, promoting prostitution and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, according to jail records. He’s being held without bond.
State authorities got involved in the case April 18, when a school nurse called the New Mexico attorney general’s human trafficking unit to report that she suspected a girl who used trafficking terms at school — saying things like: "Mom and I hustle" — might be a victim of sexual assault, the complaint said.
And the nurse had good reason: In November 2017, the 7-year-old girl had come to school reeking of urine and looking “unkempt,” the complaint said. A teacher went to the bathroom to help the girl change into donated clothes and saw dried blood on her underwear. The teacher told the principal, who reported it to a police detective.
But when a uniformed Albuquerque police officer went to the school to take a formal incident report, the officer declined to take the bloodstained underwear because “there was no chain of custody,” the principal and teacher told state investigators. Emergency medical services weren’t called, according to the complaint, but the teacher said she sent a mandatory child abuse notification to Social Services.
There’s no record of police responding to the school that day, state investigators said. Police did go to the motel where the children were living with their parents the next day, following up on the Social Services notification, investigators found. But Albuquerque police determined that “there was nothing that would cause concern of [the children] being abused in any way by their parents,” according to an Albuquerque police report quoted by state investigators.
The teacher and principal also described another concerning incident, the complaint said.
After the November incident, the girl showed up at school one morning in a vehicle school staff didn’t think belonged to the girl’s parents, according to the complaint. When she got out of the car, she was wearing “high-heel dress shoes, had press-on nails, was wearing make-up, and had her hair ‘done.’” The teacher and principal said it all looked professionally done, and described the child’s appearance as “overtly sexually provocative and age inappropriate.”
The girl told her teacher that her mother had put the make-up on, the complaint said. When the teacher expressed skepticism, the girl instead said that she had done the make-up and hair herself, the teacher told investigators.
But the children were only taken from their parents last week, when a concerned citizen spotted the mother with the children on April 24, investigators said. Police found them inside a Chili’s restaurant and arrested the mother. Social Services took custody of the children.
When asked why the children hadn’t been in school, the mother said she was “homeschooling” them, according to the criminal complaint. The 7-year-old girl told authorities she wasn’t being homeschooled, and her brother said they weren’t at school because it was “spring break.”
When the girl found out Social Services would provide her food, she said she was “happy” because she regularly only ate beans and ketchup, the complaint said.
The children had been interviewed by Social Services a year ago — on May 4, 2017 — after the girl told a teacher she “feel[s] uncomfortable when sleeping with my dad because of the way he holds me,” the complaint said. The children didn’t disclose sexual abuse then, though interviewers said “signs of physical and emotional abuse were apparent.” However, there was no police report filed in that incident either, police told state investigators, according to the criminal complaint.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas told The Associated Press that both children remain in state custody.
“I am grateful that our specialized unit of agents and prosecutors rescued two very young children from unimaginable exploitation, horrific risk, and unthinkable acts as alleged in our arrest warrant,” Attorney General Balderas said in a statement to McClatchy newspapers. “We remain committed to keeping children safe and are preparing to bring formal charges against the defendant.”
New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Monique Jacobson called the allegations “bone-chilling,” and told the AP that the department is reviewing every interaction the agency had with the girl’s family.
Police are investigating the mother, but she has not been charged, KRQE reports.