ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
“It’s gotta be tearing their hearts out.”
That’s what Frank Payne says about the Albuquerque police officers and social workers who responded to calls regarding Omaree Varela before his death last year.
Sitting at the kitchen table one recent evening with his wife and a few of their kids, Payne adds, “It’s gotta be tearing them up.”
Payne, 53, and his wife, Donna Payne, 54, have three biological children and five adopted children, and they have fostered hundreds more. They’ve seen first-hand the neglect and abuse of too many young victims and have worked closely with the Children, Youth and Families Department as it struggles to keep children safe.
Both Frank and Donna talked about the challenges they as a family face, as well as the challenges CYFD and police face as they make tough decisions about a child’s future.
There had been nine referrals to CYFD regarding Omaree’s family before he was killed Dec. 27, allegedly beaten and kicked to death by his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus. His stepfather, Steve Casaus, has also been charged in the death.
The tragedy ignited public concern, and the governor has announced changes to the system.
Some people believe Omaree’s life could have been saved if he had been taken from parental custody by Albuquerque police officers and placed with a foster family by CYFD, as the department does regularly.
But the Paynes said they believe CYFD has borne undue blame for the tragedy.
And Frank Payne still feels for the APD officers who didn’t listen to a now-infamous recorded 911 call placed by an unknown party last June, during which Omaree’s stepfather verbally belittled and abused him in a diatribe laced with profanity. The officers who showed up at the home in response stayed for only a short time before leaving Omaree behind. Officers involved were later disciplined.
“How are they going to know, if the stepdad’s (acting) all nice, and the kid is staying as calm as he could,” Payne asks. “The officer is not going to know how to handle that … they have to go by what they see. The officer has to make the decision of whether he’s safe or unsafe.”
Rescued from abuse
The Paynes’ adopted kids are lucky that at some point someone made the decision they were unsafe and they ended up with the Paynes.
The eldest adopted daughter, Shanté Payne, 26, was abused in her first years of life. Her experiences since then bear little resemblance to Omaree’s. The University of New Mexico student studying to be a special education math teacher was born when her drug-using, oft-incarcerated biological mother was 14.
She entered the foster care system when she was 2 years old. In the years that followed, her brothers born after her would wind up in the foster care system, too.
During one foster placement out of state, Shanté said, she was emotionally and physically abused by prospective adoptive parents. The mother in that family was beating her and her brothers with a hair dryer cord, which left bruises on Shanté’s arm.
When she showed the bruises to her school bus driver, he told her to tell the school social worker, which she did.
That day, the social worker intervened. Shanté and her brothers never returned to that home.
They were eventually reunited with the Paynes, who had fostered them before, and who legally adopted her and three of her younger brothers in 1995, when Shanté was 7.
Shanté was not the most traumatized child to enter the household.
“We’ve had babies in full body casts,” said Frank Payne of the children they have fostered over the years, 300 being their best guess. “After awhile, we don’t ask. You just shake your head in disbelief.”
Henry Varela, spokesman for CYFD, calls the Paynes “a wonderful example of a family that has opened their home and their hearts to children in need.”
But not enough of them have come forward to serve: In New Mexico at any given time, there are over 2,100 kids in foster care, but fewer than 1,000 families trained to foster them.
“New Mexicans have always been well-known for helping others in need,” said Varela, adding the plea: “And we know that there are many families out there that are like the Paynes who would make wonderful foster parents.”
‘Like a Band-Aid’
Most recently, the Payne family welcomed what they say is their final adoptee, LaShawntie, who is now 5. She was 3 weeks old when they began fostering her; they legally adopted her in 2012 when she was 4.
One recent evening, she climbed onto her father’s lap as he sat at the dinner table. She reached up to his head and snapped a blue barrette into his hair. Unfazed, Frank left it there and continued talking while rubbing her back. “Every night I come home, she’s in my lap, like a Band-Aid on me,” he said later. “She cries when I go to work. That’s just her. I wouldn’t change it. Every night I tuck her in; she wants a story. She doesn’t want anyone else to do it; she wants me to do it. I accept it. I love it, really.”
Alternately called “Peanut” and “Burrito” by her older siblings, she was born to a drug-abusing teen mom apparently unaware she was in labor when she gave birth to LaShawntie, who weighed four pounds at the time.
Now a healthy and good-natured child, she is developing a relationship with her biological mother, with her adoptive mother’s support.
“Just because she cannot parent her full-time does not mean our daughter should lose her biological mom as a part of her life,” said Donna Payne, her eyes filling with tears.
Donna can readily recite all the birthdays, adoption dates and significant milestones in the lives of each of her children. While they were growing up, she made sure they were exposed to the same activities enjoyed by their biological children (now in their 30s), including gymnastics, band, sports and karate.
As is the case with many foster homes, the parents in the Payne family aren’t the same race as the kids. The children the Paynes have adopted are black, and the Payne parents are white, which led to a task that stumped them: how to do the hair of black girls.
Years ago, Donna Payne recalled, she didn’t want her black friends to know she was clueless in that arena, so rather than asking their advice, she’d stand in the black hair care section of stores waiting until a kind-looking shopper walked by. She’d ask them for tips.
Since then, she’s become a champion hair braider, said Shanté, who was always allowed to stay home from school on the days Donna would braid her hair, often a 10-hour project.
Although most of the children have moved out of the Payne family home near Lomas and San Pedro NE, it’s still a place where evenings are filled with laughter around the dinner table and weekends include going to church and family get-togethers. Shanté recently moved back in to make going to college easier financially.
Frank Payne said he and Donna never set out to become the family they are.
Because of the overload of children in the CYFD system, it’s not unusual for kids to remain in a household as foster children for years, even when the parents or trained caregivers fostering them had only intended to care for them short-term, he said.
Outside the home, Frank Payne works as a general contractor, gutting and repairing commercial buildings at the request of tenants, while Donna has run training and support groups for newly adoptive parents around the state.
In his family’s three decades providing foster care, more children have stayed with them than the house had adequate room for, he added.
“You start loving them like they’re yours … you’re supposed to treat them like they’re yours, anyway,” he said, adding that CYFD’s need surpassed his family’s intentions to adopt as many children as they did. “It wasn’t something we set out to do, trust me. But they needed a mom and a dad, and they loved us and we loved them.”
The Paynes now consider themselves retired caregivers, but, Donna said, whenever they get calls from CYFD asking them if they could foster a child, they say they’re no longer taking anyone in, but to call back if they can’t find a safe placement.
Summing up what has motivated him and his wife – and some of their children who’ve been trained to provide foster care as well – Frank Payne said: “All of us, we get into it to help families. Not to screw up.”
That’s why the Paynes opened their hearts and their home to hundreds of neglected, abused children.