January 12, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
It’s been three years since three-year-old Leland Valdez was apparently beaten to death by his mother, Tabetha Van Holtz, her boyfriend Steven Gallegos, or both. The New Mexico couple brought the child to an area emergency room, unconscious and barely alive. They claimed he’d fallen off a chair and gone into convulsions. Medical authorities and the police say he was beaten to death.
Other facts surrounding the case strongly indicate the police are right. That’s because about four months before his death, Leland’s non –custodial father sought a restraining order against Van Holtz, his ex-wife.
In a petition for an order of protection from domestic abuse that Andrew Valdez filed Sept. 8 at state District Court in Santa Fe, Valdez wrote he was "in fear for my kids' well being when she is around," referring to Van Holtz. He said he discovered "bruises all over (Leland's) back, neck, legs, chest, arms" on Aug. 8.
"I asked him what happened, and he told me, 'Mommy hit me in my tummy,' " Andrew Valdez said Wednesday. "And Alyssa (Leland's sister) told me 'Mommy's boyfriend' would hit him, too."
After Leland’s death, Valdez said,
"I knew something bad was going to happen if they let the kids stay with her," Andrew Valdez, 25, said of Tabetha Van Holtz, the mother of the children. "I was doing everything legally I could do to make sure they were safe, and it's hard not to sit here today with my son beaten to death and not think that CYFD failed to help my son..."
The CYFD he referred to is the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department that’s in charge of children’s welfare and protection, i.e. the state’s child protective services agency. At the time of Leland’s death, it was revealed that, in response to Andrew’s alarm about Van Holtz’s abuse of Leland, the agency had investigated but done nothing to protect the little boy.
Worse, one CYFD caseworker said the investigation had been spiked by a supervisor, Gabrielle James. As I wrote at the time,
[I]t looks like CYFD caseworker Donald Romero may have called for action to be taken against Van Holtz and Gallegos but had his request quashed by his supervisor, Gabriella James…
A spokesperson for the Governor's office, Scott Darnell added,
"This individual (James) has been placed on administrative leave and every case in which this individual was involved is being reviewed," Darnell stated in an e-mail. "The Governor is deeply concerned and has been personally involved in working with the cabinet secretary (Yolanda Berumen-Deines) to get to the bottom of this."
James was subsequently fired, and is appealing her dismissal. According to this article (Albuquerque Journal, 1/10/14),
Within days of the Valdez boy’s death, Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor who was in her first month in the governor’s office, got personally involved in the case and said Children Youth and Families Department employees had been “protected” because of the flawed policies of the agency. She said she feared children were being put at risk.
Astonishingly, the excuse CYFD gave at the time for not protecting Leland Valdez was that caseworkers couldn’t determine whether it was Van Holtz or Gallegos who was beating the child, so they did nothing. Needless to say, that’s utter nonsense. If a child is being beaten in a home, he can be taken from that home until the environment is safe for him to return. Caseworkers don’t have to identify the abuser with certainty; they just need to ascertain that the child is suffering abuse. In short, CYFD’s excuse is the rankest bunk.
Andrew Valdez has sued CYFD for failing to heed his alarms about Leland’s abuse in Van Holtz’s household. What’s perhaps most disturbing is the fact that, after Andrew made his first allegations to CYFD, Van Holtz went to family court to get sole custody of Leland and her request was granted. How a court could grant exclusive custody to a mother with an active complaint of child abuse against her is anyone’s guess. And of course Andrew’s was no idle claim (as so many child abuse claims made during custody proceedings are). No, he had proof in the form of bruises to Leland’s whole body to back up his story. Besides, CYFD never claimed Leland wasn’t abused; they just didn’t know who was doing it. With all that in mind, some judge handed a three-year-old boy over to his mother. Amazing.
The latest is that, three years after the fact, the criminal trials of Van Holtz and Gallegos are finally coming up. The cases have been severed; Van Holtz will be tried in March and Gallegos in July. Both are charged with various accounts of intentional and negligent child abuse. The District Attorney made Gallegos a plea bargain offer, but Gallegos rejected it, preferring to take his chances with a jury.
“Mr. Gallegos feels he is completely innocent of these charges, and he does not want to plead guilty to anything,” [attorney Dan]Marlowe said. “The plea fell apart because Mr. Gallegos does not feel he is guilty of this … and he wants his day in court.”
That’s a strong and dangerous stand for Gallegos to take. When little kids are killed by adults, juries understandably want the adults held accountable, so the tendency to convict is powerful. In addition, Van Holtz is to be tried first. That means she’ll have every opportunity and motivation to point the finger of blame at Gallegos.
Not only that, but it looks like Gallegos’ defense is that Leland’s death was not due to abuse but to the alleged fall.
On Friday, Marlowe telephoned Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic psychologist who will testify for the defense, during a brief break in Gallegos’ hearing before District Judge Francis J. Mathew. Marlowe told the judge that Plunkett would be available for the July trial date.
Plunkett, of Hastings, Minn., [is]an expert on shaken baby cases…
Of course if Van Holtz’s defense is different – that it was Gallegos who beat the child – the non-abuse defense is considerably undermined. In any case, the medical examiner’s office has already determined the cause of death to be blunt force trauma and called the case a homicide.
We’ll stay tuned to see what happens, but what apparently hasn’t happened is that the CYFD has cleaned up its act. It seems another child has been killed by its mother after CYFD was alerted to the possible danger.
While the governor has said in the recent case of Omaree Varela that the responsibility for the boy’s death lies squarely with the mother who allegedly kicked him to death, she has also ordered a full review of the CYFD’s actions in the Albuquerque case.
As in the Leland Valdez case, both CYFD and police had investigated prior reports of possible abuse of Omaree.
Over a year before he was beaten to death, nine-year-old Omaree told his teachers that his mother beat him, among other things, with a telephone. They reported the matter to police who involved CYFD, but the investigation stopped there. Now various agencies are pointing fingers at each other in an effort to avoid blame for Omaree’s killing.
No word on the whereabouts of Omaree’s father or whether he would have been a suitable placement for his son.
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