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February 10, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

I’ve reported on the ongoing saga of children in New Mexico who’ve been killed by their mothers and/or their mothers’ boyfriends long after the state’s child welfare agency, the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), knew they were in danger. The issue has become a political football in the early stages of the race for governor and is drawing more and more attention from the news media.

There’s an aspect to this that’s nothing more than what we’ve come to expect – overworked, underpaid, undertrained caseworkers unable to properly monitor every child in their too-large case loads. Sadly, and to our eternal disgrace, this happens in every state. We say we care about these kids in the same way we say we care about their education. But when it comes to budgeting money for teachers or caseworkers, ah, that’s another story.

But in the Albuquerque area, I smell a rat of a different species. In the cases of Leland Valdez and Omaree Varela, caseworkers weren’t overwhelmed with work and they weren’t inexperienced, but little boys who were known to be in danger in their mothers’ households were kept there. And both boys were killed, beaten to death by, in Leland’s case, Tabetha Van Holtz and/or her boyfriend and, in Omaree’s, his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus. What appears to have happened in both cases is that a caseworker actively intervened to prevent the child from being taken out of a situation that was known to be dangerous. In Leland’s case, he had a fit father with whom he could have been placed. In Omaree’s case, nothing about his father has yet been reported, so we don’t know whether he could have offered a safe haven.

And in Omaree’s case, the caseworker appears to have ignored protocols for the child’s being interviewed by police. Omaree had told his teacher that his mother was beating him and showed her the welts and bruises he said were caused by beatings with a belt and a telephone. But before the police could arrive to question him, caseworker Elizabeth du Passage allowed his mother to sit and talk with him, after which eight-year-old Omaree changed his story saying his injuries were caused by a fall.

Now there’s this (KRQE, 2/7/14). The information provided by the article is sparse and preliminary, but a federal civil suit has been filed against CYFD and a so-far-unnamed investigator in yet another case of child abuse.

According to a just-filed federal lawsuit, a CYFD worker defied a judge’s order and took an 8-year-old girl away from her father and gave her to her mother – and into harm’s way.

The grandparents say CYFD washed their hands of the case and for months, the family didn’t know where the girl or the mother was. They hired a private investigator to find her.

“We discovered that she had been starved,” said grandmother Carolyn Silverman. “She had been physically abused, beaten by her mother and uncle and sent out in the streets to buy them drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and whatever.”

The grandparents now have sole custody of the girl. They say the mother doesn’t have a permanent home, so they don’t know where she is.

That’s all I know about this case, but it, along with the others, are beginning to fit a pattern. We know from the Urban Institute’s 2006 study entitled “What About Dad?” that child welfare agencies exhibit a pronounced antipathy for paternal custody. In that study, in over 50% of cases in which a child had been taken from an unfit mother, no one bothered to contact the father as a possible placement alternative. My guess is that same antipathy for fathers may be at work in New Mexico. It certainly seems to be in this most recent case. After all, when a court orders a child to remain with her father and a caseworker violates that order for the purpose of placing the child with a mother without a home or job, something’s going on other than looking out for the child’s best interests.

I’d like to know what. If anyone has any information about the federal civil case, by all means, let me know.

Meanwhile, the State of New Mexico is racking up lawsuits at a pretty brisk clip. That’s what happens when a state agency that’s tasked with protecting children, instead places them in harm’s way.

I hope to report more on this case soon.

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