It’s clear the Children, Youth and Families Department made serious mistakes in the case of a toddler girl taken from her parents after officials learned the teen son had sexually assaulted the 6-year-old son and determined the parents hadn’t done enough to stop it or remedy the trauma.
All contact between the parents and their daughter was eventually cut off by the time she was 4. The parents have spent years and untold sums trying to get her back. The girl is now 10, doesn’t remember her parents and has a foster family that wants to adopt her.
In other words, everybody involved has lost or faces losing something dear to them.
And now a Lea County district judge must figure out whether the girl should be returned to parents she doesn’t remember or stay with the family that wants to adopt her. The state Court of Appeals, which weighed in last summer, notes there is “no truly acceptable choice.”
Whether CYFD should have taken initial custody of the toddler is not in dispute. It’s what CYFD did afterward that is the problem. Officials either should have allowed supervised visitation between the girl and her parents or made it clear they were unsuitable and would not regain custody.
But this disturbing odyssey also illustrates the nearly impossible job CYFD and its social workers face daily as they try to balance the best interests of children with the rights of parents – even parents who are struggling.
The family came to the attention of authorities in 2010 when the couple’s then-6-year-old son began acting out sexually at school and told his principal his teen brother had sexually assaulted him several times. The boy said he had watched porn with his brother, and he later told authorities he had also watched porn with his parents on computers.
But social workers and police quickly verified the older brother had raped his younger brother.
Officials ordered the parents to keep the teen away from the children, but when authorities arrived at the home to confiscate computers, the teen was there. Police also alleged the house was filthy and the girl was found sleeping on a pile of laundry. The parents’ attorneys countered that the house wasn’t dangerously dirty. The two young children – and the family dog – were removed.
The older son was subsequently convicted; the younger son is now in treatment in Texas for his own sexual deviancy. The parents deny the allegations of watching pornography with their son and were never charged.
CYFD went back and forth on whether the parents could eventually regain custody of the daughter. But finally the agency decided another family should be allowed to adopt the youngster.
A state district judge in 2015 terminated the parents’ rights to the little girl, ruling they basically abandoned their daughter. But the Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, pointing out it was the child protective system, and not the parents, that drove the disintegration of the relationship through its mismanagement of the case. The appellate court blasted CYFD for halting all visitation, including supervised visitation, with the parents while the child pornography allegation was being investigated.
The girl’s parents have filed a federal lawsuit.
CYFD does not make the news when it makes the calls that keep children safe and healthy. It does with cases that go horribly wrong, as with 9-year-old Omaree Varela, who was brutally kicked to death by his mother while his abusive stepfather shot up heroin. Or 10-year-old Victoria Martens, whose mother is among those accused in Victoria’s rape and murder.
In this case, it’s hard to fault CYFD for pulling the little girl out of the home, given the dysfunction playing out. If the agency had left the girl there and she had been sexually assaulted, or worse, all would be pointing fingers at CYFD for failing to act. But CYFD bears the blame for the manner in which it handled the case later, completely cutting all contact between the girl and her parents, and then arguing that parental rights should be terminated because the relationship had disintegrated. If the agency felt the parents were unfit and conditions in the home were too dangerous for the little girl, it should have argued that in court from the get-go.
Parties to the case have discussed how to move forward with custody, possibly having both couples – the parents she knows now and her natural parents – in her life. Still, it’s a tough call and there is no perfect answer.
The case illustrates how imperative it is for CYFD to act deliberately to safeguard everyone’s rights. Otherwise, everyone loses – especially the child.
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.