Family and services play a crucial role in bolstering
an at-risk child
EDITOR’S NOTE: When Diego Gallegos was named executive director of Youth Development Inc. in 2015, a staff member boasted to him about how well the organization had served families over the course of several generations.
“‘We’re so excited because we’re serving the grandchildren of kids who used to be with us,’” Gallegos recalls being told. “I said, ‘And that’s a good thing?’ No, no, no, it’s not a good thing.”
Breaking the cycle of poverty and all its associated ills — poor schools, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration — has never been easy. In New Mexico, it has met with decades of resistance, despite the efforts of dozens of state agencies and hundreds of nonprofits.
What does it take to break the cycle? Child advocates say it takes interrupters — be it in the form of social service agencies, wraparound programs, loving foster parents or doting grandparents.
For Santiago Turrieta, a onetime Albuquerque gang member, it took the birth of a child — along with a lot of help from Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Social Security.
CYFD pays the bill for the child’s day care program. HUD covers the cost of the father and daughter’s one-bedroom apartment. The father also gets food stamps and Social Security disability, due to a knee injury and PTSD from years spent in a New Mexican prison’s solitary confinement.
There are programs that surround the child with the type of support she needs in the critical early years, during which her body and brain are growing rapidly.
She is also surrounded by something just as important to the development of a happy, successful child: people who love her, protect her and put her interests first. There is a place to nap at Grandma’s house after day care in the afternoon. Dinner together most evenings with her dad, grandma and often her auntie. Healthy food, and a father who has learned to sneak the carrots into the mashed potatoes.
Here is their story.
Santiago Turrieta and Joee Ruiz were lounging in bed in a sleepy haze one morning after shooting their morning dose of heroin when Joee said, “Oh, baby. My water just broke.”
They had grown up just a few blocks from one another in Barelas, one of Albuquerque’s oldest and most historic barrios, a collection of old adobe houses on the edge of downtown. But they didn’t get together until a year after Santiago got out of prison in 2013.
He was an armed robber who had done 18 years in prisons across New Mexico. Out for good, he hoped, he was still stealing to buy dope for himself and his new girlfriend.
Joee (pronounced “Joey”) was a little thing, with dark hair and big eyes, just barely over 20. Santiago joked about robbing the cradle. He was past 40, having spent decades in prison and five years in solitary confinement. With his long basketball shorts, high white socks and his head shaved to reveal ear-to-ear tattoos — a Zia, “Burqueño” and “Weasel” (his nickname) — he was a walking advertisement for the local Barelas gang.
Joee was so thin no one believed her when she said she was pregnant. When a tiny bump finally showed, it didn’t stop her from using, although Santiago and her mother made a point of cutting down her dose: just enough to keep her from feeling sick.
She never saw a doctor until the first day of December 2015, when she delivered a 5-pound, 5-ounce baby girl at University of New Mexico Hospital. Baby Girl Turrieta — she would have no name for several days — had big dark eyes, a full head of black hair and pursed lips.
And just as assuredly as they had passed on their DNA, Joee and Santiago both contributed numerous risk factors that predicated a grim future.
Joee had grown up in poverty and dropped out of school after sixth grade. Santiago, who had been given up by his teen mother at birth, was the victim of child abuse. He started using drugs at 10, dropped out of high school in ninth grade and ended up in juvenile lockup at Springer Correctional Center when he was 15.
Social scientists call this bag of troubles Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. When ACEs pile up, they create stress that is so toxic it actually changes the way a child’s brain functions, resulting in behaviors — drug and alcohol abuse, depression, risk-taking — that set the stage for a life of failure and unhappiness.
The more risk factors, the greater the likelihood the child will repeat the patterns. It’s a theme of New Mexico’s history and its stagnation in measurements of child well-being.
That cycle takes interrupters to break. Luckily for Baby Girl Turrieta, she was to be surrounded by interrupters, from social service agencies to doting foster parents, a patient grandma and a dad whose determination and devotion are his new life’s calling.
‘She changed everything’
It surprised no one when a blood test revealed the baby had opiates in her system.
Several days into her young life, Baby Girl Turrieta cleared the heroin from her little body and got a name: Mya Angel.
Then the Department of Children, Youth and Families stepped in, and Mya went from the hospital into foster care.
Joee, who had already given up custody of one child, would not be involved in the baby’s life. She continued using and was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia — needles — before Mya’s first birthday. But Santiago wasn’t giving up. When he looked into the dark eyes of his tiny daughter, something in him shifted.
“She changed everything,” he says. “I love this little girl, man. I just can’t get enough of her.”
He enrolled in drug treatment programs, attended drug court, and took every parenting visit required by CYFD. But give up heroin? He had been using it for more than 20 years.
He passed some drug tests, failed a few and provided fake urine samples for others. He found himself using again on the second night out of inpatient treatment.
After yet another failed drug test, his caseworker laid it on the line: “You stop, or she’s going up for adoption.”
That night, he says, “I had a dream that I was in this room with a grown girl, and I seen her eyes and it was my daughter. I said, ‘Mya, Mya, it’s me.’ And I went to hug her and she pushed me away. And she goes, ‘I don’t want nothing to do with you.’ And I said, ‘It’s me, your dad.’ And she said, ‘I know who you are. Just the way you didn’t want nothing to do with me when I was a baby, and you chose drugs over me? I don’t want nothing to do with you.’”
He woke up crying.
“I didn’t want her growing up wondering like I wondered: ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? Why did they give me up? Was I not good enough? Did I cause a problem in their family? Was I an accident? Was I a product of rape? What’s wrong with me?’”
Since that morning in April 2016, Santiago says, he hasn’t put another needle in his arm.
At first he thought he could do it alone, but he eventually gave in and sought help from a methadone treatment clinic. Now, he picks up his doses once a week and lines them up in the butter compartment of his refrigerator. Every morning starts not with a fix, but with a drink of methadone.
After Santiago proved to the state he wasn’t using and completed home visits, Mya came home to him that Christmas, a 1-year-old.
And just like that, Santiago’s life took a turn from robber, addict, convict and gangbanger to single dad trying to figure out nap schedules and bath times.
He swipes through the pictures on his phone, pointing out Mya at Easter with her Hello Kitty doll. There she is, dressed as a leprechaun. Petting her cat. Finger painting. Blowing bubbles.
“She’s my little doll,” he says. “She’s my princess. She’s my snuggie monkey.”
Leaving behind gang life and criminal life is a struggle. One step has been a series of painful laser treatments to remove “Weasel” from his neck. But as a single father, he is isolated. Unemployed, he has long days to himself while Mya is in day care. His phone still pings with old friends asking if he wants to come out.
“I can’t,” he says. “I can’t. I can’t mess up and go back to prison. I’m learning how to be a good person, not just a good dad. You know how many robberies I could have committed? It’s not like I have to hold myself back. It just doesn’t have that appeal to me. Like, the thrill is gone. I’ll always be a member of my gang, but there comes a time when you just … I’m done.”
A reason for change
Santiago’s mother, Maria Leyba, a preschool teacher and poet who adopted him when he was four days old, has been with him from the beginning, encouraging him to work harder, to do better and to win his daughter back.
“If you really want this child,” she told him, “then you have to change.”
Leyba is sitting in the small home in Barelas where she grew up. Family photos and prison art cover the walls, and shelves are crowded with books about New Mexico.
As a mother herself, she struggled as Santiago — so bright he earned a spot in a gifted class as a fifth-grader — rebelled against his adoptive father, clashed violently with him and in his teens chose gang life over life at home.
Eventually the parents divorced, but it was too late for Santiago. Leyba made countless trips to visit him in prisons and held her breath when he was paroled. When Mya came along, she told him, “If you really want this child, then you have to change.”
“We never thought he would,” she adds. “That’s the shocker.”
Today she supports son and granddaughter by offering a welcoming home. Toys are neatly stacked in a corner of the living room, and Mya-sized chairs are in the front and back yards. Mya has a crib there for afternoon naps and Santiago and Mya come every afternoon and stay for dinner.
Santiago and Mya live just a few blocks away in a subsidized two-room apartment. He gets by on $700 a month in Social Security disability payments. He receives the support of a state-funded day care program and a weekly parenting class at PB&J Family Services in the South Valley.
Now nearly 2, Mya is perched there on a little blue plastic chair looking at a plate of tortilla pieces, eggs and potatoes.
Her father is perched on his own little chair. “Want some more papas?” he asks her and picks up a plastic spoon. “I’ll give you some more papas.”
Cassandra Walters, the parenting program supervisor, is meeting with Santiago to draw up goals for the next few months. Mya is starting to run and Santiago doesn’t want her to fall. She needs to learn to use her words, to stop throwing stuff. Mya isn’t a baby any longer, and her will and temper are starting to show. He says he wants to get her under control.
That’s when Cassandra pounces, gently. “We can’t control,” she says. “You can show her and label it when she does it.”
Santiago circles back to a familiar lesson. “You can’t control her. You can show her and guide her.”
Through these parenting sessions, he’s learned to show Mya “soft hands” when petting their cat, patiently labeling and demonstrating the correct behavior instead of just telling her “no.”
The weekly sessions are a place to practice healthy child-parent interactions. He learns to talk to Mya, work through his frustrations, and redirect her attention when she’s veering toward mistakes.
As he puts it, he’s learning to parent through the child’s eyes. “She can’t talk, so she has to find ways to communicate with me,” Santiago says, reciting some of the lessons he has learned. “I have to adjust to that and be open to it and decipher: Is she dirty or is she hungry? Is she sick or is she just tired? What do her different cries mean?”
Santiago doesn’t have it all figured out, but he’s working on it every day. And as he celebrates Mya’s second birthday and nearly a year as her fulltime dad, he’s proud of where he’s come.
“I hope that somewhere, a father that has walked along the same path of being in drugs, gangs, prison and is stuck with a child one day, I hope somewhere a father can learn and not throw in the towel and be like, ‘Shit, if this guy can do it, I can do it.’
In an art therapy session at PB&J, Santiago patiently teaches Mya how to draw dots and then cap each marker after she has finished using it. Her hands, splotched with washable ink, make a fingerprint on a sheet of paper.
“Mya made fingerprints!” he exclaims.
And then, a joke borne of the past, not the future: “Let’s hope she never has to do that!”