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TUES: Advocates Say Pandemic Increased Domestic Violence, Vaccine Scheduling Expands, + More

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Advocates Detail 'Shadow Pandemic' Of Violence Against Women - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Cases of domestic violence against Indigenous women and children and instances of sexual assault increased over the past year as nonprofit groups and social workers scrambled to meet the added challenges that stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic, advocates said Tuesday.

Their testimony came in the opening session of a two-day summit focused on ending violence against Indigenous women and children. Native American leaders from pueblos throughout New Mexico and from the Navajo Nation gathered virtually for the event.

The victim advocates who shared their stories pointed to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that were instituted in the early months of the pandemic. Many domestic violence victims were stuck at home with their abusers, believing there was nowhere else to turn while advocates themselves faced challenges getting to work and finding new ways to connect with victims and share information about resources.

They called it "a shadow pandemic," saying it has had ripple effects for victims, law enforcement and advocacy groups.

Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said tribally based advocates and other organizers from Shiprock to Nambe and Santo Domingo used the past year to reinforce existing mutual aid networks and learned many lessons in doing so that will help "plant the seeds for change"' as communities begin to emerge from the pandemic.

"When we return to our gatherings and ceremonies, deer dinners, feasts and dances, though we will be missing some who we lost and loved dearly, the lessons of this past year will not be in vain," said the mother and Laguna Pueblo member. "It is my sincere hope that when we all leave our time here together, we are inspired to make things better — better for our women, better for our children and for all the people we love who might experience violence in their lives."

Charley said it's going to be different — it has to be.

The coalition, which organized the summit, and its partners have been working for decades to address a problem that only in recent years began to make headlines as more Indigenous people went missing or turned up dead. Native American women have been victimized at astonishing rates, with federal figures showing that they — along with non-Hispanic Black women — have experienced the highest rates of homicide.

An Associated Press investigation in 2018 found that nobody knows precisely how cases of missing and murdered Native Americans happen nationwide because many cases go unreported, others aren't well documented and no government database specifically tracks them.

Sherriann Moore is the deputy director of the Tribal Affairs Division within the U.S. Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women. She told those attending the summit that some programs have been reorganized to address tribal concerns about bureaucratic hurdles for accessing assistance and grant funding.

Moore also discussed the Biden administration's proposed spending for addressing violence against women, saying the recommendation of $1 billion would nearly double the current budget and would include money for new programs ranging from restorative justice and protections for transgender victims to support for women at tribal colleges and universities.

She urged tribal leaders to lobby Congress for more funding and to push for reauthorization of federal laws including the Violence Against Women Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act.

Gail Starr, clinical coordinator of the Albuquerque Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Collaborative, said the pandemic helped to illuminate how few safety nets there are, particularly for survivors of sexual assault and other violence. She and others talked about the need to find safe housing for them and even cellphones so they have a way to reach out for help.

Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Jenelle Roybal said her community north of Santa Fe is starting a pilot project in which tribal police will partner with the U.S. Marshals Service on cases involving missing and slain Indigenous victims. The pueblo also is focused on educating young tribal members about healthy relationships.

Roybal said education will be key to stopping the cycle, pointing out that half of the homeless women and children in the U.S. are fleeing from domestic violence.

"When you think about all the women and children who aren't receiving the help they need, it's very upsetting," she said. "Just moving forward and assisting each other is definitely what we need to do."

New Mexican Residents 16 Or Older May Now Schedule VaccinesAssociated Press

Every New Mexico resident 16 or over who has signed up on the state's online coronavirus vaccine registry can now schedule their own appointments.

The announcement on Monday means residents between the ages of 16 and 40 now do not have to wait for the state to assign them a time.

Only residents 40 and older were eligible to select the time and place for their inoculations before Monday's update from the state Department of Health.

"It is definitely a milestone that is worth celebrating, but in the end, this is all about being able to get as many New Mexicans as possible to be vaccinated," Department of Health spokesman David Morgan said.

As of Tuesday, about 57% of residents 16 or older have been vaccinated with at least one dose, according to the state Department of Health database.

Roughly 41% of residents 16 or older have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the same database.

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, breathing trouble, sore throat, muscle pain and loss of taste or smell. Most people develop only mild symptoms.

But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia. Sometimes people with a coronavirus infection display no symptoms.

Prison Worker Alleges Retaliation For Report Of Rodents - By Morgan Le,e Associated Press

A mental-health worker at a state prison in western New Mexico says she was harassed and threatened by superiors after reporting details of an apparent rodent infestation, under a lawsuit filed Tuesday in state district court.

The lawsuit under the state's Whistleblower Protection Act was filed on behalf of Nicole Ramirez, a licensed social worker and mental health clinician at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility. The Corrections Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment by phone and email.

Advocates for improved prison conditions say supervisors of the 390-bed facility have failed for years to resolve a rat and mouse infestation at the kitchen in the women's lockup in the town of Grants. A separate federal lawsuit filed in February on behalf of two former inmates alleges cruelty and negligence in connection with the infestation that allegedly resulted in contact between prison food and rodent feces, urine and even rodents that plunged into vats of stew and oatmeal.

The new lawsuit says that Ramirez started work at the prison in December 2019 and immediately heard complaints from inmates about rodents and contact with food.

When Ramirez filed a complaint with the office of professional standards at the Corrections Department, she was confronted by a deputy warden and told that she would need to be disciplined, according to the lawsuit. Ramirez says she resigned amid concerns about a disciplinary writeup and her personal safety after a security access card stopped functioning.

"Nicole believed she had a professional responsibility to report the infestation because of the ongoing threat it posed to the physical and mental health of the women incarcerated at the prison," said Matthew Coyte, a member of the steering committee for the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project that represents Ramirez.

In a companion lawsuit this week, an advocacy group accused the Corrections Department of refusing to release Ramirez's internal complaint about the rodent infestation under state open records laws.

The Corrections Department and its food service contractor at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility have not yet responded in court to allegations of an infestation.

Attorneys say that inmates at the prison have been tormented by the risk of potentially fatal Hantavirus infection from contact with mouse droppings, though no Hantavirus infections were reported. A local wild mouse species is a known carrier.

New Mexico Settles Child Care Lawsuit, Promises Subsidies - By Cedar Attanasi,o Associated Press - Report For America

New Mexico's early childhood department has settled a lawsuit with anti-poverty groups, cementing access to child care subsidies for low-income residents.

Under the agreement announced between the Early Childhood Education and Care Department last Thursday, households can qualify if they earn up to 200% more than the poverty line, which is income less than $52,400 for a family of four.

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2018 against the Children Youth and Families Department and former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, alleging that eligibility for child care subsidies was reduced without following the proper rulemaking process.

Three years later, the advocacy group OLÉ and the legal group New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty have settled with the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who transferred child care authority to a new, cabinet-level department.

The groups say the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department even went beyond the demands of the lawsuit in making child care more accessible and affordable.

One requirement of the settlement is to give clearer notice to parents about program eligibility.

"ECECD is committed to ensuring that every eligible family in New Mexico can receive child care assistance in a fair, equitable, and transparent manner," said ECECD Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky. "In the nine months since our department officially launched, we have worked to change regulations to make it easier for families to apply for assistance, waived all parent co-pays until July 2022, and continue to seek ways to expand eligibility for child care assistance for families in our state."

Groginsky fought to keep child care centers open during the pandemic, even as unemployment often exceeded wages of the average worker. Child care facility owners credited her for keeping communication open by hosting a weekly phone call and offsetting low wages with direct cash bonuses to workers.

Resolution of the lawsuit is win for the nascent department in a challenging year that saw child care capacity fall due to distancing restrictions and demand spike because of school closures that persisted even as parents returned to their jobs.

Groginsky also expanded eligibility to parents who are graduate students.

"The department has sought out and listened carefully to parents, and the improvements to the program reflect that collaboration and the reality of working families," said Tim Davis, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. "The department has made changes that are truly groundbreaking and acknowledge that quality affordable child care is a bridge to opportunity for families and their children."

New Mexico To Fund Blimp Broadband Study For Rural Internet - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico is finalizing a $3.2 million contract to a dirigible manufacturer to study the viability of distributing high-speed internet from above the ground instead of underneath it, officials confirmed Tuesday.

Details of the contract to Sceye, pronounced "sky," are still in the works, says Economic Development Department spokesman Bruce Krasnow.

The company calls its silver, blimp-shaped, remotely controlled balloons "stratospheric platforms." For the internet study, they'll be launched well below the stratosphere, around 12 miles above the ground.

Sceye founder Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen — former CEO of the global public health company LifeStraw — said in a statement confirming the contract that the company will launch flights from Roswell, New Mexico. The company also has facilities in Moriarty.

The Economic Development Department award is one part of the state's response to a thin internet infrastructure laid bare by the pandemic.

Over 20% of students were left without internet at home at the start of the pandemic as schools shut their doors, with some offline until at least December. While internet access has vastly improved for students in the past year, much of the expansion is due to temporary hot spots that connect to distant cell phone towers at slow speeds.

State officials estimate that expanding high-speed internet to rural areas via buried cables will take years and cost upwards of $5 billion.

The Sceye study would test a cheaper solution that essentially suspends cellphone tower equipment up in the air. Cell phone towers can be obstructed by mountains, buildings, and even the curvature of the earth. But wireless signals travel easily through the air.

The state investment follows the national news of the abandonment of balloon-based internet efforts at Google's parent company Alphabet in January, and the announcement this year from SpaceX that it will eventually expand satellite internet service to lower latitudes including New Mexico.

Sceye's system could increase remote education capabilities and give New Mexico bargaining power over state cell phone and broadband contracts, Krasnow said.

Last August, the department said it would commit $5 million in incentives for Sceye to move its operations to New Mexico, but the agreement was never finalized because of COVID-19, Krasnow said. The benchmarks included investing $50 million and creating 140 jobs.

Vestergaard did not respond to a request for comment on future investment and employment plans Tuesday.

Sceye Inc is based in Moriarty, New Mexico, and is owned by Sceye S.A., a holding company in Switzerland.

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This story has been corrected to show high-speed internet would be distributed from above ground, but not from the stratosphere; and to show the elevation of the stratospheric platforms for this test will be 12 miles (20 kilometers) not 31,000 miles above sea level.

New Mexico Tourist Wins $10.5M Las Vegas Casino Slot JackpotAssociated Press

A visitor from New Mexico won a $10.5 million slot machine jackpot early Tuesday at a Las Vegas casino, the property reported.

The South Point Hotel Casino & Spa said the Megabucks payout was Nevada's largest jackpot of the year.

The player won on a $5 wager, according to a news release that said the winner did not want to be publicly identified.

Megabucks is manufactured and operated by London-based International Game Technology.

The jackpot at the south Las Vegas Strip property came just hours after a tourist from Alaska won more than $2.1 million with a $40 bet on a Monopoly Millionaire slot machine at The Cosmopolitan.

That winner's name also was not released.

Man Arrested After Girlfriend's Kids Give Note To Bus DriverAssociated Press

A Las Cruces man was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence-related charges after his girlfriend asked her children to give their school bus driver a note saying she was in danger, police said Tuesday.

The bus driver called 911 after being handed the note Friday morning and police then found the woman with multiple cuts, bruises and scrapes "consistent with her claims of physical abuse," a police statement said.

Police later located Erik Alvarado, 40, and he was arrested on suspicion of three counts of aggravated battery against a household member — two for suffocation and one for strangulation — and other charges, the statement said.

The woman secretly wrote the note after Alvarado abused her overnight and took away her cellphone, preventing her from calling for help, the statement said. "Much of the abuse was done in the presence of the couple's toddler and their two school-age children."

Alvarado remained in jail without bond Tuesday and online court records didn't list an attorney for him who might comment on his behalf.

US Agency Seeks To Speed Up Native American Land Decisions - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

U.S. Interior Department officials on Tuesday moved to reverse policies adopted under former President Donald Trump that Native American leaders said were hindering efforts by tribes to establish, consolidate and govern their homelands.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued an order that allows regional Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to approve the transfer of private land that's not on a designated reservation into federal trust for tribes. Putting land into trust gives the federal government legal title to the property, while allowing tribes or individual Native Americans to use it for their own interests and not have to pay state and local taxes.

Interior officials in 2017 set a policy that said off-reservation trust land decisions had to be made by the assistant secretary at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

The change was opposed by the National Congress of American Indians, which said it would freeze off-reservation acquisitions and had been adopted without tribal consultation.

Haaland said in a statement that rescinding the policy will empower tribes to determine how their land is used.

"We have an obligation to work with tribes to protect their lands and ensure that each tribe has a homeland where its citizens can live together," said Haaland, the first Native American to lead a White House Cabinet agency.

The order and a pair of related legal opinions issued by Interior Deputy Solicitor Robert Anderson are meant to speed up decisions on more than 1,000 pending applications from tribes across the U.S. seeking to put more than 200,000 acres of land into trust. Applications sometimes lingered for years, costing tribes hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses and other costs, officials said.

Anderson also withdrew an opinion issued in Trump's last day in office that said Interior didn't have authority to take land into trust in Alaska.

Whether land is in trust has broad implications for whether tribal police can exercise their authority, for tribal economic development projects to attract financing and for the creation of homelands and government offices for tribes that don't have dedicated land.

"Tribal nations care for the social needs of their people, whether that's housing, health care or education," said Lance Gumbs, an ambassador for the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island, which was formally recognized by the federal government in 2010 after a 32-year campaign.

There are 574 recognized tribes in the U.S. and 326 reservations, villages, rancherias and other designated homelands, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Some reservations have multiple tribes but not every tribe has land of its own. Many reservations are just remnants of a tribe's original land base.

Gumbs, who is also a board member of the National Congress of American Indians, said the now-cancelled policy for approving land transfers had created a backlog at the Interior Department and added to costs for tribes.

"Land is everything....It makes it very difficult for tribes to take care of their people without this very important component," he added.

The Trump administration put 75,000 acre into trust over four years, versus more than 560,000 acres in the eight years of the Obama administration, Interior officials said.

The trust land system was adopted in 1934, when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in response to more than 90 million acres of tribal homelands that had been converted into private land under the 1887 Allotment Act.

Approximately 56 million acres are currently in trust. Combined that's an area bigger than Minnesota and makes up just over 2 percent of the U.S.

Top-Tier Management Team Assigned To New Mexico WildfireAssociated Press

A top-tier management team and additional air tankers and ground crews have been assigned to a wildfire burning in the Sacramento Mountains of south-central New Mexico.

The fire near the Three Rivers Campground and west of the Ski Apache ski resort had burned 6,100 acres with no containment around its perimeter as of Tuesday morning, according to a statement posted by fire managers.

The fire was reported Monday and its cause was under investigation, the statement said.

No injuries or structure damage has been reported.

Smoke was blowing into the communities of Alto, Capitan, and Ruidoso, the statement said.

New Mexico Assigned Nearly $19 Billion In Federal Aid So Far - Associated Press

A new estimate shows that successive rounds of federal economic relief since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic will deliver an estimated $18.9 billion in money and services to New Mexico.

The Legislature's budget and accountability office published the estimate Monday. The analysis will be presented in greater detail Thursday to members of the legislative finance committee.

The federal aid to one of the poorest states in the nation dwarfs the annual general fund spending of $7.4 billion by the New Mexico state government.

The tally of nearly $19 billion includes direct payments to individuals and families, supplemental unemployment benefits, forgivable loans to businesses to support payroll, payments to healthcare providers, support channeled through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and more.

A $10.4 billion portion of that aid is traced to relief legislation approved in March 2020, often referred to as the CARES Act. The state government received $1.25 billion through the act, including $360 million that went toward local governments and tribes.

Relief signed by President Biden in March 2021 under the American Rescue Plan Act should bring another $7.1 billion to the state, including $2.6 billion in direct payments to individuals and $1.62 billion for state government. 

It's unclear how the state will spend its portion after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed $1.1 billion in suggested spending by the Legislature. 

Lujan Grisham is asserting her authority over the relief spending and awaiting guidance on permissible expenditures from the U.S. Treasury.

In addition to new federal relief efforts, Congress has expanded the federal share of spending on Medicaid health insurance for the poor, community development block grants and food subsidies for low-income families.

Census Finds New Mexico Among Slowest Growing Western States - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's population grew by 2.8% over the last decade, making it one of the slowest growing states in the West, according to the first numbers released Monday from the 2020 census.

The Census Bureau said that overall, the national growth rate of 7.4% between 2010 and 2020 was the second slowest in U.S. history.

In the West, only Wyoming had a slower growth rate than New Mexico, where the count put the resident population at just over 2.1 million. That included 58,343 more people than a decade ago but not enough to gain an additional congressional seat. Neighboring Texas and Colorado gained seats as a result of their population increases.

New Mexico is one of the most difficult populations to accurately count, according to a comprehensive examination from the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. Census estimates also projected that roughly 43% of New Mexico's population — about 900,000 people — live in "hard-to-count" areas.

The state last spring launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to ensure an accurate count of its heavily Hispanic and Native American population. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday called it a success that resulted from the hard work of hundreds of community members, nonprofit groups, tribes and others.

"The results of this immense effort will ensure that New Mexico receives every federal dollar to which we are entitled," she said in a statement.

Lujan Grisham had signed an executive order that drew on members of her Cabinet and advocacy groups to encourage participation. The Legislature also set aside $3.5 million for counties to establish and staff complete count committees.

The governor's office has estimated the state receives about $7.8 billion annually from the federal government based on census counts to underwrite health care, educational programs, transportation, housing and more. The governor and others had warned that even a 1% undercount could translate into more than $700 million in lost federal revenues over a decade.

Warm, Windy Conditions Elevate Fire Danger In New MexicoAssociated Press

Weather forecasters and forest managers are warning that warm, windy and dry conditions are combining to boost fire danger around New Mexico.

The National Weather Service in Albuquerque said critical fire weather was expected to shift Tuesday to the eastern part of the state, while much of central and southern New Mexico would see more unsettled weather by Wednesday and Thursday.

The city of Las Cruces issued a temporary ban on open burning in hopes of preventing any wildfires, and the first stage of fire restrictions will take effect Tuesday on the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico.

"We have seen an increase in abandoned campfires and feel it's critical to reduce the potential for any additional fire starts during this period of drought and high fire danger," said Adam Mendonca, the forest supervisor.

More than half of New Mexico is dealing with exceptional drought conditions, making for a much worse situation than just a year ago.

Bernalillo County Jail Health Care Provider Ends Contract Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The medical care provider for Bernalillo County's jail is walking away more than a year before its contract is up.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Monday that Centurion Detention Health Services abruptly notified the county it will end its service in six months.

The health care provider has faced heavy criticism after nine people died over the course of a year while at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque. Six of those deaths involved inmates who were detoxing from drugs or alcohol or were in medical units, the newspaper first reported in March.

A corrections officers' union alleged Centurion staff sometimes put life-or-death medical situations on the officers.

Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca says the county initially asked Centurion to address concerns it had. But the company instead opted to end its contract, which it is legally allowed to do.

An attorney for Centurion did not respond to requests for comment.

Centurion began serving the jail in 2019. It was expected to give medical, dental, mental health and psychiatric services under a contract worth $13 million a year.

Archdiocese Of Santa Fe To Sell Properties For Settlements Associated Press

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe is expected to sell off hundreds of properties by this summer in order to fund settlements of sex abuse lawsuits.

The archdiocese, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018, plans to part with more than 700 properties, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Sunday.

Nearly 400 claims of abuse, some of which allegedly occurred decades ago, have been filed.

According to court records, the archdiocese in the last several months has requested a bankruptcy judge grant a request to sell properties in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Raton, Sandia Park and Edgewood. Those sales alone reaped $7.5 million. Most of it stemmed from selling off a large part of the Carmelite Monastery Complex in Santa Fe.

The documents also indicate church officials have hired an auctioneer firm out of Florida to oversee the sale of 732 properties by July 21. A lot of the properties are vacant lots no bigger than a couple of acres. They are spread across the state including Valencia, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties.

Abuse survivors have accused the archdiocese of transferring ownership of properties to more than 90 parishes to keep them from going toward settlements.

In October, a U.S. bankruptcy judge ruled that lawyers for clergy sex abuse survivors can file lawsuits alleging the archdiocese fraudulently transferred millions of dollars in property and other assets to avoid bigger payouts to victims. The court has indicated that more than $150 million could be involved, and that was only for a portion of the assets victims potentially could receive.

That decision in the Chapter 11 reorganization case opened the door to what could be a multimillion-dollar boon to hundreds of alleged victims. It could also result in protracted, costly legal appeals that would tap funds that could have paid valid abuse claims.

The archdiocese filed for reorganization in late 2018 to deal with the surge of claims. An estimated $52 million has been paid in out-of-court settlements to victims in prior years.

Navajo Nation Reports 26 New COVID-19 Cases, 10 More Deaths Associated Press

The Navajo Nation is reporting 26 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 10 additional deaths.

Tribal health officials released figures combining new cases found on Saturday and Sunday.

This brings the total number of virus-related deaths on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 1,273.

Officials did not immediately have a new toll for total COVID-19 cases but there have been more than 30,400 cases documented.

The Navajo Department of Health on Monday is expected to loosen some virus-driven restrictions and transition to "yellow status." Restaurants will be allowed to have in-door and outdoor dining at 25% capacity and 50% capacity, respectively. Parks will be permitted to open at 25% capacity but only for residents and employees. Navajo casinos will be able to open at 50% capacity but only for residents and staff as well.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says more than half of the reservation's adult population has been vaccinated. But people still need to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

One Gorilla Departs Albuquerque Zoo, Another Arrives Associated Press

Officials at Albuquerque's city zoo say they've said goodbye to one gorilla and welcomed another.

A 35-year-old gorilla named Marcus left the Albuquerque BioPark in March to go to another accredited zoo and 19-year-old Kojo arrived this month from the Smithsonian National Zoo, BioPark officials said.

The zoo which accepted Marcus will announce his arrival once he's ready to be moved into a public habitat after a quarantine safety period, officials said.

According to the BioPark, Marcus' move was recommended by the species survival plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Zoo officials said Kojo "has a lot of personality" and is currently being introduced to females in the zoo's gorilla troop.