Thursday, January 02, 2014

State CYFD Under Reader Microscope As ABQ Mother Is Charged With Killing Her 9 Year Old Boy; Plus: Getting Credit For Gay Marriage  

Omaree Varela
Outrage, concern and bafflement were some of the reader emotions expressed in reaction to the tragic and brutal death of 9 year old Omaree Varela of ABQ, allegedly at the hands of his own mother.

Making this case even more sad and poignant was the news that the boy had phoned the state Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to tell of his plight of abuse but he still was not taken from his mother, 38 year old Synthia Varela-Casaus. She is now charged with beating her son to death.

Omaree lived on and off for several years with foster parents who now speak with regret on how CYFD restored custody of the child to his mother who had a history of drug abuse.

A former CYFD case worker familiar with the case but who wished to remain anonymous came with this:

Joe, In your blog you asked some very important questions about CYFD. I  worked in the office where Synthia Valera-Casaus had prior investigations.  To your question of whether or not CYFD is properly staffed, I can answer that with a very affirmative "No." But my answer to your question begs another question, "Why not?"

...In the instance of East Bernalillo County Investigations Unit, there are some disturbing facts regarding employee worker retention levels. While investigating child abuse is a tough and demanding job, we had amazing team members with many years of experience under their belts. To see the way these workers helped each other out and backed each other up day after day, case after difficult case, was an amazing experience. . . .But our office was not the norm throughout CYFD. . .

Over the course of two years, I saw a team that worked seamlessly together devolve into an atmosphere where everyone was only looking out for themselves. CYFD? More like CYA.

In the two years I stayed on under my supervisor, I saw a lot of my friends become disheartened and one by one, I saw them leave. I had also had enough and decided to quit.  I was the 36th person to exit under this supervisor.. Since my departure, my former co-workers have told me of at least 6 other people who have left.

Could this child's death have been prevented? Possibly. But it wasn't, therefore we must assign blame. Was it the mother's fault? Surely it is, as she has admitted to kicking him. But if this child's death could have been prevented, why was it not? Is it fair to assign blame to a case worker who may have missed a buried clue because they have to sift though piles and piles of cases on a daily basis?

I don't feel that the case workers themselves should necessarily shoulder the blame when a tragedy like this occurs. CYFD case workers across the state are working at dangerously low employee rates. They are overworked and underpaid. And in this case, they are working under direct conditions brought on by a manager who has little experience running an investigative office, who has lost many longtime employees with years of experience...

You also asked, what are we going to do about it? Well, I have told my story in hopes that it will prompt deeper questions of our Governor and upper management of CYFD.

Another reader writes:

Every time a child who is already "in the system" with CYFD gets hurt, we ask whether staffing is appropriate. We should, more precisely, ask how often social workers get around to seeing children in foster care relative to how often the national standards require. We should ask about caseloads of investigative and treatment social workers at CYFD, or what they get paid, again relative to national standards. Or how many dozens more open cases a children's court attorney has to carry relative to national standards. You've been around, Joe, but you'd be shocked. It isn't like our legislature or this Governor haven't been told these numbers every budget cycle. CYFD staffers are absolutely committed to kids in crisis or else they would not work so blessedly hard on so many more cases than they should. It's government on the cheap, baby. Kids get hurt, live in terror, have no chance for any future, or die because we're cheap.

An ABQ legislator also reacted:

ABQ Dem State Senator Michael Padilla. . . filed a joint memorial two weeks before the boy's death requesting a report from CYFD about how the state agency works. The request is to include how and when the department decides to pull kids from abusive homes. Also a concern is how long kids are kept in foster homes and how they determine who can be a foster parent. The Omaree case has raised concerns CYFD may be rushing to put kids back with parents even if the situation is not a safe one. . . The joint memorial has to pass through both houses. Then CYFD will be asked to disclose how the agency works. Padilla believes once that happens, more legislation could follow that could put oversight on CYFD.

In 2013, New Mexico was ranked 50th in the nation for child well-being in annual rankings from the Anne E. Casey Foundation.


Several readers said our Tuesday blog giving credit to former ABQ Mayor Chavez and former Governor Richardson for advancing gay rights, should have given more credit to former ABQ Mayor Jim Baca. For example:

Baca was the mayor who made health insurance available to the partners of gay city employees over the objections of the city council and he was the first Mayor to participate in Gay Pride events. 

Baca was ABQ mayor from Dec. 1997 to Dec. 2001.

And another reader said the actions of Republican Victoria Dunlap, who was elected Sandoval County Clerk in 2000, deserve recounting. They sent this missive penned by photo journalist Mark Bralley:

In 2004, Dunlap was approached by a same-sex couple applying for a marriage license. She requested an opinion from County Attorney David Matthews who advised her his research favored issuing marriage licenses to any adult couple who applied and if she did not issue the license she might be guilty of malfeasance. Dunlap issued some 67 marriage licenses February 20, 2004, 64 couples exercised the licenses and were married. . . .New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid wrote an advisory letter stating that, without research or making a formal opinion, it was her belief that New Mexico law favored marriage only between a man and a woman and that the licenses were invalid.

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