January 13, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The death last month in Albuquerque, New Mexico of nine-year-old Omaree Varela has sparked a political firestorm in the upcoming race for the state’s governorship and revelations of understaffing and high turnover of caseworkers at the Children, Youth and Family Department’s Protective Services Division. Read accounts here (Albuquerque Journal, 1/8/14), here (CTPost, 1/8/14), and here (KRQE, 1/9/14).
But despite the many details coming out about apparent malfeasance by both the CYFD and possibly the Albuquerque Police Department, so far we have more questions than answers.
Over a year ago, when Omaree was eight, he told one of his teachers that his mother had hit him in the face with a telephone. The teacher reported the matter to CYFD that dispatched caseworker Elizabeth Du Passage to the scene. She examined the boy and found that he not only had a large bruise on his face, but another on his hip that extended to his thigh, the result, he said, of his mother’s hitting him with a belt.
CYFD did nothing to protect Omaree at that time despite the evidence of his injuries and his explanation of how they occurred. The agency failed to act as well despite the fact that Omaree had previously been taken from his mother and placed in temporary care due to her abuse of him. And it is precisely the agency’s failure to act that gives rise to one of the most significant unanswered questions in the case — did caseworkers intentionally shield a violent mother from the consequences of her abuse?
Most readers may find that a shocking question. After all, we’re used to child protective caseworkers being so overworked that they’re simply unable to deal effectively with their caseloads. But we rarely (or never) encounter facts that urge the question “Did a caseworker intentionally keep a child in harm’s way?” Negligence is one thing; willful exposure of a child to injury is something else entirely.
Omaree had told his teacher and Du Passage that his mother had hit him with the telephone and with a belt, leaving huge welts on his face and body. The police were called and here’s how APD officer Jennifer Jara described what she found when she arrived at the school:
The recently released Albuquerque police report of Oct. 20, 2012, says that the then 8-year-old third-grader at Hodgin Elementary School initially told CYFD investigator Elizabeth Du Passage, that his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, hit him in the face with the house telephone, causing a large, swollen bruise above his right eye. In addition, the boy showed a large bruise extending from his right hip to his upper thigh, which he said was from his mother striking him with a belt.
The APD report, written by officer Jennifer Jara, said that by the time she arrived at the school, the child was sitting with his mother.
“I made my way to the office where (the child) was waiting, with his family,” officer Jara wrote in her report. “I was shocked at this because they were sitting together and talking and this struck me as odd. In my experience with situations of this kind, I have never encountered the parents and CYFD altogether, without an officer first being able to interview each subject separately. I was advised that the mother had already been interviewed and advised of the situation, and clearly had access to the child before I was able to interview him.”
Omaree Varela then changed his story, saying his injuries happened after he fell while chasing after his younger brother outside the family home. The child told both Du Passage and Jara that “he did not want to get taken away from his mother again.”
In short, Du Passage knew the child was claiming to have been seriously abused by his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus. She also knew the police were on their way and that Omaree’s statements formed probable cause for the police to arrest and charge the mother with a variety of criminal behavior. Du Passage then allowed Omaree to sit with his mother and, when Jara talked to him only minutes later, he changed his story to the classic cover up of child abuse — he’d fallen.
Du Passage’s failure to separate Omaree from his mother until after the police were able to question him understandably “shocked” officer Jara since the almost certain result and likely purpose of doing so would have been to permit Varela-Casaus to replace the real story with the cover up in the little boy’s mind. Remember, he’d already spent time in temporary care with strangers and wasn’t eager to do so again. I can easily imagine Varela-Casaus explaining to Omaree that, if he didn’t say what she wanted, “They’re going to take you away again.”
Omaree’s change of story was what happened and what Du Passage invited to happen.
That Du Passage may have intentionally ensured that an obviously abused child would remain with his abuser seems corroborated by the case of the death of three-year-old Leland Valdez three years ago. No, Du Passage wasn’t involved in that case, but the allegations surrounding Leland’s death suggest complicity by caseworker Gabrielle James who bent over backward to keep him with his mother, Tabetha Van Holtz, again despite prior abuse by her and complaints by the boy’s father, Andrew Valdez. James was subsequently fired from her position with CYFD and every single case she worked on was reviewed for malfeasance. Another caseworker, Donald Romero, at the time said the investigation into Leland’s prior abuse was quashed by someone in the agency, presumably James. In short, there too, caseworkers intervened to keep a child in his mother’s care when she was known to be abusive and dangerous.
Another unanswered question in Omaree’s case is, as it so often is in others, “Where’s the dad?” As the 2006 Urban Institute study that asks the same question revealed, in over half the cases in which child protective services take a child from a mother for abuse or neglect, no effort is made to contact the father, even when they know who and where he is.
Did that history repeat itself in Omaree’s case? Did the CYFD know who and where his father was? Did it make any effort to contact him? Could he have been a better placement for Omaree when he was taken from Varela-Casaus previously. If he had been, would Omaree have been less afraid of being taken from his mother and therefore more inclined to tell the police the truth?
Many questions, but so far, no answers.
What we do know is that last month Synthia Varela-Casaus kicked Omaree to death. Albuquerque police say she’s admitted to doing so. Once again, a little boy has met a violent end at the hands of his mother. Once again, a child was kept at risk in his mother’s home despite the fact that the state agency charged with his protection knew the danger he was in. And once again that agency did nothing to ensure his safety.
That’s all caused quite a kerfuffle in the upcoming race for governor between incumbent Susana Martinez and challenger, Attorney General Gary King.
The death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela last month, allegedly at the hands of his own mother, is already becoming an issue in the upcoming gubernatorial race.
The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has come under fire for how Varela's case was handled before his death. Now Attorney General Gary King, who's running for governor, is getting into the fight.
A 2011 legislative audit showed a staff shortage problem in CYFD. At a news conference in Albuquerque on Thursday, King said those problems still exist.
"It's brought to light the endemic problem we have in CYFD, which is not enough social workers, not enough people to deal with the case load they have," King said referring to Varela's death.
Gov. Susana Martinez told the media last week the blame in Varela's death rests on his mother's shoulders.
"That mother caused that child's death," Martinez said.
In 2012, a CYFD investigator and Albuquerque Police officer were made aware of allegations of abuse by Synthia Varela-Casaus. She wasn't arrested, and CYFD allowed Varela to stay in the home…
"I think that indeed the mother of the child is the one responsible for killing this child, but I think the governor is responsible that the agency has the resources they need to pursue these issues on behalf of the agency," King said.
King said somewhere along the line a ball was dropped, and the state isn't without blame.
But amid the electioneering, it seems a fact or two have gotten lost. King claims that understaffing is the problem, and it is. The agency, like so many others in different states, has too few caseworkers who leave too quickly resulting in a lack of experience and too-high caseloads. That’s a problem that New Mexico, like Arizona and Texas, must face up to and correct.
But of course understaffing had nothing to do with Omaree Varela’s death. Elizabeth Du Passage was right there on the scene, saw his injuries, heard his report of how they’d occurred and actively intervened to help ensure that Varela-Casaus wouldn’t be arrested or charged. That may be many things, but an understaffing problem it’s not.
So King is only half right. The same holds true for Martinez. It’s undeniable that it was Varela-Casaus, and she alone who repeatedly kicked her son until he was dead. As such, she needs to pay a heavy price. But what’s also true is that Du Passage and the CYFD knew about the danger Omaree faced and consciously did nothing about it, even to the extent of shielding his abuser from responsibility for her brutality. Caseworkers at the CYFD have one job to do — protect children from harm — and they failed.
To say, as Governor Martinez does, that the only one to blame for Omaree’s death is his mother is absurd on its face. It also suggests a mindset that the agency cannot be blamed for failing to do its job, a mindset that’s equally absurd.
Rest in peace, Omaree. It may be a blessing that you’re not around to watch the adults who hurt you and who failed to prevent your death point the finger and pass the buck. Even if you were still alive, you’d be too young to realize that their pathetic protests of innocence are little more than guarantees that, all too soon, another child like you will be brutalized and killed.
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