The tragic death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela raises serious questions about the role of the state agency charged with seeing that children are not left in dangerous living situations.
The Children Youth and Families Department had been aware of the family for a long time and it appeared the boy had a history of being abused, Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Simon Drobik told the Journal. Records provided by a family that has cared for the boy over the years confirm this.
Omaree died Friday afternoon after his mother allegedly kicked him and he hit his head. Synthia Varela-Casaus, 38, who at first claimed her younger child pushed him off a bouncy horse toy and who now claims his death was an ” accident,” is charged with child abuse resulting in death and is being held on $100,000 bond.
Court documents say medical professionals found extensive evidence of injuries consistent with abuse – scars, bruises and wounds including cigarette burns on Omaree’s chest, upper lip and back, bruises above his genitals, a bite mark on his left arm and cuts on his head. The criminal complaint says Omaree had reported previous abuse, but it’s not clear to whom or when.
Henry Varela, a CYFD spokesman, says the agency can’t remove children from their homes without an order by law enforcement or through the courts. “If we do find evidence or we find a child is not in good living conditions and they’re bruised and crying, at that time we’ll contact law enforcement,” he said. “We are never going to leave a child, but we have to have proper evidence….”
Surprisingly, CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines said Monday that her agency had “no active case with the family at the time of the incident.” The agency is not talking about specifics of this case, citing state law that prohibits commenting on past or current cases.
But hiding behind confidentiality claims just doesn’t wash here; the victim of abuse is dead. The tragic fact is that official efforts, if there were any, to protect Omaree failed.
Certainly there is information that is directly applicable to the criminal investigation of the mother and should remain confidential. But the only things that general confidentiality would protect now are the actions, or lack thereof, by those in the CYFD charged with removing Omaree from harm’s way.
Even though CYFD says it investigates every allegation of abuse, Omaree’s death cries out for an independent in-depth investigation of what the department knew and what it did.
That – and justice – are the only things that can honor a young, sad little boy’s short life and assure the public that New Mexico takes care of its innocents.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.