ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On Dec. 27, the brief, sad life of Omaree Varela ended with a kick in the gut.
Omaree was 9, in the fourth grade. Since his death and his mother Synthia Varela-Casaus’ arrest for child abuse resulting in death, a lot of people have done a lot of talking.
His mother, a prostitute and an addict, explained herself to news reporters as she was being led to jail.
“I was disciplining him, and I kicked him the wrong way; it was an accident. I messed up.”
And you might remember Roberta Morales. She was the woman pictured in the newspaper on Dec. 30 with tattoos on her face. She met Varela-Casaus in jail in the ’90s, and they became fast friends.
Morales sat down with the Journal’s police reporter and gave her a primer on the difference between child abuse and acceptable parenting, New Mexico-style. Getting hit with an extension cord, as she was when she was a child, is OK.
“I know me, coming from the ghettos I come from – and I call it ghetto-fabulous – you get smacked if you open your mouth or you come into the presence of adults talking, so for me, that wouldn’t be abnormal. To kick a child is abnormal, but there’s a difference.”
When doctors looked at Omaree’s body in the emergency room, they found a horror story of past and recent injuries: cigarette burns on his chest, back and upper lip; cuts on his head; bruises above his genitals; a bite mark on his arm.
I wonder where Morales would place cigarette burns and biting on her “discipline/child abuse” scale?
As those ladies were giving us their chilling insight into the nuances of proper parenting, the bureaucracy was singing its own song, which has been mostly verses of an old standard called “It’s Not My Fault.”
Let’s start with Gov. Susana Martinez, a career prosecutor who used her prosecution of another child abuse case, the death of “Baby Brianna,” as one of the centerpieces of her 2010 political campaign. Martinez has ordered an internal investigation of her Children, Youth and Families Department in connection to the case, yet she has bristled at the notion that her administration and the department should take some responsibility for Omaree’s death.
“There isn’t a lack of oversight. I want to be really clear,” she said. “Whatever happened to this little 9-year-old was the result of the mother kicking that child in the stomach. … A social worker could never have done anything to prevent it. The mom is the one who admits doing this and therefore is responsible.”
That would make perfect sense if Varela-Casaus had been able to keep her ugly family secrets secret until that fatal blow. But she didn’t. She had come under the scrutiny of CYFD at least twice.
We don’t expect social workers to have some special ESP that allows them to swoop into houses and stand between the parents and the child as soon as the parent draws a fist. The duty of the CYFD worker is to respond to complaints about suspicion of abuse, conduct thorough investigations and make informed decisions about how to respond, along with the police and the district attorney.
In the case of Varela-Casaus, CYFD investigated her in 2009 and recommended that her children, including Omaree, stay with another family during their investigation of her caretaking abilities. CYFD later oversaw the return of the children to Varela-Casaus.
In 2012, a staff member at Hodgin Elementary noticed a welt on Omaree’s face and asked him what happened. He told her his mother had hit him in the face with the telephone. The staffer followed the law and called CYFD.
According to a police report, a CYFD investigator interviewed Omaree, and he repeated that his mother had hit him with a phone. His mother told a different story – that her son was a liar and mentally ill, and that he had been injured when he fell outside. She also had another explanation; he was hit by his brother with a plastic bat.
Over the course of the interview with a police officer, who separated Omaree and his mother before she talked to them, Omaree said he had fallen, then said his mother had hit him with the phone. And he showed the officer a bruise that went from his hip down his thigh and said his mother had hit him with a belt.
The CYFD investigator could have recommended that Omaree be removed from his home for 48 hours, but she didn’t. A deputy district attorney, according to the police report, advised the officer she couldn’t arrest the mother based on what Omaree told the APS and CYFD staffers. She was told she could make an arrest based on what Omaree told her about being hit by a belt. The officer declined, saying further investigation was needed.
But no police report ever made it to the DA’s Office – or at least the DA’s Office says it can’t find one. Omaree went home, and the doctor’s exam of his body at the hospital tells the rest of the story.
Life is complicated, and we all make quick decisions every day. Should CYFD have recommended that Omaree be taken from his home right then? If the agency had, could that have saved his life? If CYFD had kept Omaree separated from his mother before the officer arrived, might his statements have been clearer and stronger? Should the officer have made the arrest anyway? Should she have ordered that Omaree be removed on a 48-hour hold?
Fatal child abuse cases are rarely murder mysteries. In this one, we know who, by her own words, kicked her child and caused him to fall into a dresser. That’s the given in this tragedy. But it doesn’t explain how a kid who asked for help didn’t get it and instead was sent home by a group of adults to be hurt again.
As the talking continues – and it will – I would like to hear more introspection – deep, honest, painful introspection – from everyone who ever crossed paths with Omaree. And I’d like to hear more self-examination – piercing, difficult, constructive self-examination – from everyone in the agencies charged with protecting kids from ghetto-fabulous parenting.