Records show accused foster father bypassed state prior to sex charges
By Elizabeth Piazza
FARMINGTON — Todd Mortensen, the former foster father facing charges of criminal sexual penetration against a foster daughter, continued his foster role after having more than 80 counts of sex-crime charges dropped in 2005 and despite being licensed as a foster care worker with the state Children, Youth and Families Department in 1994, a Daily Times investigation found.
Mortensen, 45, confessed April 1 to six counts of criminal sexual contact against a 12-year-old girl living in his home as a foster daughter. Two counts of criminal sexual penetration against the same girl were added to the list of charges April 5.
Multiple sources confirm Mortensen and his wife, Lisa, fostered as many as 50 children during the last two decades. Six children were placed in the home by CYFD while they maintained a Family Foster Home license from June 1991 through April 1994, according to CYFD records. The remaining children, including the victim who claimed Mortensen sexually abused her in 2004 and the victim of the recent charges, were fostered privately outside the state's scrutiny.
Outside the system
The 12-year-old girl and two additional foster girls were removed by CYFD when Mortensen was arrested April 1. A Sheriff's investigation revealed they were placed privately in the Mortensen home by the girls' adopted families. CYFD has no record of the girls being placed through the state system, CYFD spokeswoman Romaine Serna said.
The Mortensens went outside the scope of the state agency to foster children, a decision that is not illegal, Serna said. Many foster or adoptive parents go through private or religious agencies that place children.
The Mortensens, who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did not go through the church system, but may have used community connections within the church to offer assistance to other families.
LDS Family Services conducts infant adoptions and works with families dealing with fertility issues, but it does not work with foster placements, local Director David Holmes said. The service has no record of Mortensen using the agency, which holds all adoption records for life, Holmes said.
Church sources confirm the Mortensens made private arrangements with other members of the church to care for children previously adopted from the state system. The 15-year-old alleged victim in 2004 was privately placed in the Mortensen home by her adoptive parents, after "they had problems," according to court records.
Mortensen was charged with 65 counts of criminal sexual penetration and 20 counts of criminal sexual contact against that teen. All 85 counts were dismissed by the prosecutor in 2005 because the girl was deemed mentally unstable to testify.
Authorities believe the recent 12-year-old victim and the two additional 16-year-old girls also were placed in the Mortensen home by families who were in the process of adopting the girls but having problems.
"There was no state involvement but the families knew each other," San Juan County Sheriff's Lt. Lisa Haws said. "There were some family issues going on in the adopted home and Lisa (Mortensen) offered to take them in," Haws said.
Church documents also played a role in the alleged 2004 incidents, according to court records. Mortensen allegedly used an error on the victim's baptismal records to justify his actions.
"He convinced (the girl) that their sexual relationship was appropriate, because in the eyes of the church, they were married. Todd was mistakenly listed as (the girl's) spouse on (her) baptismal certificate," according to court records.
Church officials deny any direct connection to the organization and maintain any foster care arrangements conducted within the church community were private.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expresses its deepest sympathy for the victim in this case. The church condemns child abuse and will not tolerate such actions by anyone affiliated with our faith.
"It is our understanding that the charges against Mr. Mortensen had nothing whatsoever to do with his church participation, which did not put him in contact with children. Mr. Mortensen will face church disciplinary action," Bloomfield Stake President LeRoy Dugger said in a prepared statement. Dugger also served as stake president at the time Mortensen faced the first charges.
Conflict of interest?
It is unclear whether Lisa Mortensen's role in the social work field made it easier to reach out and offer private assistance to families experiencing difficulties with their children.
Lisa was hired in 1998 as a part-time treatment coordinator for Childhaven, a local organization that offers services for children who are abused or neglected, Executive Director Erin Hourihan said. Mortensen worked as the shelter's program director from 2001 until November 2005, five months after the first charges against her husband were dismissed.
It would be a conflict of interest if Mortensen took children into her home who were associated with the agency, Hourihan said. Hourihan, because of privacy issues, could not comment on Mortensen's personnel record or the reason she left the agency.
Lisa is employed as a care coordination supervisor at OptumHealth New Mexico in Farmington, the organization that manages behavioral health services throughout the state. Specifically, the group oversees the financing of all state-funded behavioral health services for children, teens and adults.
Serna declined to comment on why or how Mortensen had foster daughters in his home following the 2004 allegations, but she reiterated that children in his home after 1995 were not placed through CYFD.
"You know we make decisions every day with the information we have available and we try our hardest to make the right decision for our children," Serna said. "Unfortunately we aren't the best predictors of human behavior."
Serna maintained the two teens legally were adopted by another family and not in foster care through CYFD because oversight measures such as monthly visits by protective workers would help prevent that type of situation from occurring.
Foster families are required before being licensed to undergo an "exhaustive process," which includes a criminal records check through the National Crime Information Center, reference checks, fingerprinting, on-site evaluations and interviews with family and friends, Serna said. Psychological profiles also are part of a larger home-study process.
Foster parents are required to attend 15 hours of additional training each year, through seminars, classroom instruction or conferences. The trainings must be approved by CYFD.
Foster families receive approximately $450 each month for each foster child, in addition to other allowances for clothing and education, Serna said.
The adoptive families who placed the girls in the Mortensens' care contributed toward their needs, Haws said.
The Mortensens formally adopted six children after first fostering them, according to CYFD records. Once they adopted the children, they no longer renewed their license. At least one adopted daughter, who is 18, was allowed by authorities to remain in the home.
The last contact the department had with Mortensen was when he renegotiated the state subsidy for his adopted children in 2009. Adoptive families are required to renegotiate annually the dollar amount the state gives eligible adopted children.
Mortensen, when licensed 15 years ago, had a clear record and passed all background checks, Serna said. The 85 charges filed in 2003 are public record and are accessible on the state's court records Web site, nmcourts.gov.
It is unlikely an individual would be approved for a foster care license if they previously were accused of charges such as the ones Mortensen faced in 2004, Serna said.
Child advocates claim it is not illegal for parents to make the choice for their child to live with another family, but without oversight, it could increase the opportunity for abuse to occur.
"I think when you stray away from the system that is designed specifically to ensure the safety of children and go another route, then you really can be placing children at risk," said Marsha Gilner-Tullis, director of the Family Advocacy Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "It is always going to be the safe thing to do and the gold standard to go through an agency that is licensed to take children."
Gilner-Tullis agrees there are good private organizations that care for children, but she asserts most of those follow guidelines similar to the oversight set in place by government agencies.
CYFD officials are cooperating with law enforcement in the continuing investigation, San Juan County Sheriff's Lt. Kyle Lincoln said.
At the time of his arrest, Mortensen was employed at San Juan Regional Medical Center as a surgical nurse, hospital sources said. Hospital spokesman Dennis Mathis confirmed Mortensen worked at the hospital since May 2008, but declined to release the department in which the man worked or the hours he was at the hospital.
Mortensen did not work with children, Mathis said. He resigned April 1.
Hospital sources said Mortensen worked the graveyard shift, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., three days every weekend.
He was home during the day, Monday through Friday, where the three foster daughters and one adopted daughter were home-schooled, according to statements the girls made to police when they were removed from the home.
Mortensen is being held at San Juan County Adult Detention Center on a $500,000 cash-only bond. He declined two requests for interviews by The Daily Times in the week after his arrest. He is facing as many as 128 years in prison for all eight counts.
The District Attorney's Office also is determining whether charges from the 2004 case will be resurrected.
A preliminary hearing April 8 was continued by Mortensen's defense attorney, Scott Curtis, who also represented him for the previous allegations. The hearing was rescheduled for June 17.
Detectives welcomed the continuance, citing added time to interview additional potential victims and witnesses.
"We are a long way from being done," Black said.