SANTA FE – The state agency now under the microscope for its handling of an abuse claim made by a child allegedly killed by his mother last month has a history of staff shortages.
A 2011 legislative audit found the Children, Youth and Families Department was plagued by worker turnover and inefficient management structure.
Fixing those problems has not been easy.
Despite hiring a large number of workers in recent years, the vacancy rate for CYFD’s Protective Services Division was at 15 percent earlier this month, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. The division investigates child abuse allegations, among other duties. The vacancy rate included 29 unfilled caseworker job positions.
The division’s vacancy rate was 13 percent as of April 2011, according to the legislative audit.
Gov. Susana Martinez told reporters this week that keeping CYFD fully staffed has proven difficult, despite her administration’s efforts.
Martinez, who has insisted the agency is not to blame for the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela, told reporters this week the agency has had a “revolving door,” due largely to employee burnout and the difficult nature of the job.
“In just three years we have hired over 300 social workers,” Martinez said.
“It’s a tough job,” added the Republican governor, who worked for several years during the 1990s as a CYFD attorney.
A $6.1 billion budget proposal for the coming fiscal year unveiled earlier this week by Martinez would earmark about $600,000 in funding to hire 10 additional investigators in CYFD’s Protective Services Division.
In addition, current case workers would be among the state workers receiving a yet-to-be-determined salary increase under the governor’s budget plan.
“It’s really important that we not only have people that we can hire, but retain,” Martinez told reporters. “It’s very expensive to train someone, then have them leave a year later to another agency because they’re paying them more.”
The governor told reporters the initiatives were not crafted in response to the death of Omaree Varela.
Meanwhile, Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, criticized the Martinez administration Tuesday for not using the full amount of money appropriated by the Legislature in recent years for more robust CYFD staffing levels.
“We’ve been giving the governor the money to do this and she hasn’t done it,” Egolf said.
State Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, who sponsored 2011 legislation intended to tighten CYFD hiring requirements, suggested more legal authority might need to be given to CYFD to reopen closed cases.
“It seems where the cases fall through the cracks is in the follow-up,” Rodriguez said.
In the case of Omaree Varela, the boy had disclosed physical abuse to school authorities about a year before his death, according to the Albuquerque Police Department.
The report was forwarded to CYFD, which investigated it. However, agency officials have said the department did not have an “active and open case on the family” at the time of Omaree Varela’s death.
The child’s biological mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, has been charged with child abuse resulting in death and is being held on a $100,000 cash-only bond.
Martinez insisted this week that Varela’s death was not due to CYFD negligence.
“There isn’t a lack of oversight. I want to be really clear,” Martinez said. “Whatever happened to this little 9-year-old was the result of the mother kicking that child in the stomach, causing (him) to hit onto the back onto a dresser.”
“A social worker could never have done anything to prevent it,” she added. “The mom is the one who admits doing this and therefore is responsible.”
The Omaree Varela case is not the first time CYFD has been involved in cases that had tragic endings. Here are some other recent cases:
• March 2011 – 17-month-old BreAndra Peña of Española died after being shaken and slapped by her godmother’s boyfriend. CYFD previously had spent 30 days investigating reported neglect by the baby’s mother, but the claim was not substantiated.
• January 2011 – Three-year-old Pojoaque boy Leland Valdez died after allegedly being abused by his mother and her boyfriend. The handling of that case prompted the firing of a CYFD caseworker.
• July 2009 – An 8-month old baby was smothered by his mother, five months after CYFD arranged for the child’s father to be his primary caretaker. Stephanie Ledford was sentenced to 18 years in state prison after pleading guilty to child abuse resulting in death and other charges.