ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Torture” is how New Mexico’s top prosecutor describes the treatment a 38-year-old developmentally disabled woman endured before her death at the hands of her caregivers, who he said were paid thousands of dollars a month through a special program meant to offer an alternative to institutional care.
Attorney General Raúl Torrez detailed the woman’s injuries during a news conference Thursday, saying she died weeks after being found in the back of a van as the caregivers tried to take her to Mexico so her wounds could be treated.
“The abuse and neglect that she endured was horrific and the injuries she sustained are among the worst I have seen in my career as a prosecutor,” Torrez said. “This was torture. There’s really no other word for it.”
Three people were arrested and charged Wednesday with abuse and neglect following an investigation that began with the stop at the U.S.-Mexico border in late February.
The case spurred a statewide review of New Mexico’s entire developmentally disabled waiver system. Social workers spent weeks conducting individual wellness checks on thousands of developmentally disabled people who receive care through the federally-funded waiver program.
More allegations of possible abuse and neglect were turned up, and the state Health Department canceled contracts with four providers in the Albuquerque area.
An affidavit filed by the Attorney General’s Office details the abuse that resulted in the charges filed Wednesday against Angelita Rene Chacon, 52, and Patricia Hurtado, 42, both of Rio Rancho. They face counts of abuse or neglect of a resident resulting in death, false imprisonment and conspiracy to commit false imprisonment.
Luz Scott, 53, of Clovis, an acquaintance of the women, has been charged with false imprisonment and conspiracy to commit false imprisonment.
Messages seeking comment from Daniel Lindsey, an attorney listed for Scott, were not immediately returned. Court records didn’t indicate whether Chacon and Hurtado had lawyers yet.
The women were scheduled to make their first court appearances Friday.
According to the attorney general’s office, Chacon and Hurtado contracted with At Home Advocacy and three other contractors to provide supplemental care for the victim. They were receiving about $5,000 a month under the waiver program to care for her.
Prosecutors say a preliminary review of available business records indicate that At Home Advocacy received nearly $250,000 to coordinate care and support for the victim in the three years before her death.
Records show the company last visited the home on Jan. 25, one month before the victim was found at the port of entry in El Paso.
According to court records, a supervisor with At Home Advocacy told FBI agents the company conducted monthly wellness visits at Chacon’s home but that “body checks” were not conducted during those visits and that no injuries were seen.
Authorities said the woman who died was severely dehydrated and drugged when she was found in the van. She also had numerous open wounds, bedsores with exposed bone and bruises and lacerations on various parts of her body.
They also described marks consistent with being restrained for a prolonged period of time.
Unable to speak when discovered by federal agents at the border crossing, she was transported to University Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, where she died on April 7. The Associated Press generally does not name people who have been abused.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and top health officials had warned that any caregivers who mistreat and abuse developmentally disabled or otherwise vulnerable people would be held accountable.
Republican legislative leaders also requested that the federal government investigate, saying an independent inquiry would ensure transparency and might prevent such cases in the future.
Both Torrez and Raul Bujanda, FBI Albuquerque agent in charge, called the case “a wake-up call” about the treatment of developmentally disabled people in New Mexico.
The woman who died “could easily have been our loved one,” Bujanda said. “You expect, you demand that your loved one is taken care of in such a way that … the only thing you’ll ever worry about is making to time to go and see them.”
Torrez urged the governor and lawmakers to overhaul protocols at the state Department of Health. His suggestions included increased staff and training, mandatory inspections every 90 days and new civil and criminal penalties for companies and providers.
He tallied 12 “auditors” for more than 6,000 sites statewide and faulted administrators and the Legislature for relying on care providers to self-report problems.
“That’s one of the fundamental problems that has arisen in this case,” Torrez said, suggesting that lucrative contracts with the state provide no incentive for providers to police themselves.
State Health Secretary Patrick Allen said Thursday that an independent investigation is ongoing to identify any systemic flaws that would allow for abuse or neglect to go unchecked. He also said the agency will continue to refer any other cases of suspected abuse and neglect to law enforcement.
“Persons with disabilities often rely on others for their day-to-day living. They literally entrust their caregivers with their lives,” Allen said, adding that when their care is covered by a state program “everyone is accountable, and we must ensure their health and safety needs are met.”