ALBUQUERQUE - A New Mexico father is accused of prostituting his 7-year-old daughter and forcing the girl and her brother to panhandle and pick pockets, authorities say.
Court records show James Stewart Sr., 37, was booked early Thursday on charges that include human trafficking, criminal sexual contact of a minor, child abuse, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and promoting prostitution. It wasn’t immediately clear if Stewart had an attorney.
Court documents indicate Stewart and his family are homeless and have been living at times at a relative’s home, at an Albuquerque inn and in a pickup truck. One of the children told authorities they spent a recent night sleeping in a park.
Agents with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office began investigating in April after getting a call from a school nurse who had concerns that the girl might be a victim of sexual assault.
A criminal complaint states the girl told investigators she and her mother would “hustle” and that she was required to dress up in high-heeled shoes and makeup and accompany her mother to “special parties” where she was left unsupervised.
Court documents also refer to previous instances that date back to 2012 in which police and state child welfare workers had contact with the family.
While the latest case is still unfolding and more interviews are being conducted, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said the top priority was ensuring the children are safe.
The children were placed in state custody and rescued from what Balderas described as “unimaginable exploitation” and “horrific risk.”
The state’s Children, Youth and Families Department confirmed Thursday that top officials with the protective services division are reviewing all the interactions the agency has had with the family.
Department Secretary Monique Jacobson said her agency also has created a portal where law enforcement can access the department’s case information to get a more complete picture of what might be going on with a family.
Investigators said in the complaint that the children had not attended school since March 20 and prior to that had a poor attendance record. School officials told investigators they were concerned about ongoing abuse and neglect issues.
A teacher told investigators the girl would regularly fall asleep during class and when asked about it, the child said she didn’t sleep the night before because “Mom made me hustle last night,” the complaint stated.
In interviews, the girl and her brother told investigators they and an older sibling would regularly panhandle during the day to collect enough money to eat. The girl also said her father encouraged her to steal people’s wallets because her hands were smaller and it was easier for her to do.
The complaint also alleges that Stewart forced the girl to sexually touch men and women in exchange for drugs, drug paraphernalia and other items.
While Jacobson couldn’t comment specifically about the latest case, she called the accusations in the court documents “bone-chilling” and said her agency has been expanding its training around the signs and risks of sex trafficking.
“I think there’s just a huge lack of awareness that it happens in our state, in our communities,” she said. “It’s not just about women from another country who are brought here. It’s our girls, our children. That has been a focus for us – to better educate our staff and our community.”
Court records show Stewart in 2009 was ordered to serve nearly a year of probation following a separate child abuse or abandonment case. He also had to complete a parenting program and refrain from alcohol and drugs.