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Foster family says boy’s death was avoidable

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The family that helped raise Omaree Varela, and had temporary custody of him and his younger sister, said the 9-year-old’s death allegedly at the hands of his biological mother was avoidable.

They blame the state Children, Youth and Families Department, which they say ordered them to return Omaree to his mother in 2011 after they had been caring for Omaree on and off for several years.

Essie Sotelo and her daughter, Shana Smith, took care of Omaree and later his younger sister Neviah Varela when, they allege, the biological mother’s drug abuse turned her into an absentee parent.

Synthia Varela-Casaus is escorted from a local hospital, where she was taken after claiming she suffered a seizure, to the downtown Prisoner Transport Center for processing in connection with the death of her son. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Synthia Varela-Casaus is escorted from a local hospital, where she was taken after claiming she suffered a seizure, to the downtown Prisoner Transport Center for processing in connection with the death of her son. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, 38, was arrested Friday night after she allegedly admitted to police that she got angry with the child and repeatedly kicked him. By the time emergency responders got to the home, the child was cold and unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Medical personnel observed signs of current and previous injuries, including bruises on the child’s back and above his genitals, lacerations, an injury that appeared to be a bite mark, and marks consistent with cigarette burns on his chest, upper lip and back.

Varela-Casaus was being held on $100,000 bond and has been charged with child abuse resulting in death.

“I blame CYFD for what happened because they put him in that house,” a sobbing Sotelo said Monday. “I told them that girl (Varela-Casaus) was not ready to take care of those kids. He was doing so good when he was with us. He liked school, he loved sports, he was happy.”

Smith was equally critical of CYFD. “They failed that little boy. What they could have done was look at the environment he was going into before taking him away from us. They could have continued once a month to check on those kids, Synthia could have been required to undergo random urine tests, to take anger management counseling and attend parenting classes. They should have dug deeper.”

Omaree Varela seen here in this photo taken when he was younger, died Friday at the age of 9, allegedly at the hands of his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus. (Courtesy of Shana Smith)

Omaree Varela seen here in this photo taken when he was younger, died Friday at the age of 9, allegedly at the hands of his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus. (Courtesy of Shana Smith)

In a statement emailed to the Journal on Monday night, CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines said her agency had “no active case with this family at the time of the incident.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with this innocent 9-year-old child who was failed by the person who should have loved him the most,” the statement says. “These types of cases are always so troubling and send ripples throughout our community. And they should, for we always strive to protect the innocent.

“CYFD is actively investigating the circumstances surrounding Omaree Varela’s death, and we are working closely with our partners in law enforcement and with prosecutors to hold the perpetrator of this crime accountable. …

“As this is an ongoing investigation, per the New Mexico Children’s Code law, we cannot comment further about this investigation or any other investigations.”

Official CYFD documents that Sotelo and Smith shared with the Journal show clearly that CYFD was well aware of Varela-Casaus and had concerns about safety of the children.

In September 2009, CYFD’s Protective Services Division recommended that Omaree Varela, then 5, and sister Neviah Varela, then 10 months old, remain in the care of Sotelo, and that the biological mother and the infant’s biological father “not take the children into their care until interviews and assessments of their caretaking ability can be completed.”

Family friends

Sotelo said she knew Varela-Casaus because she was a longtime friend of another one of Sotelo’s daughter’s, who served time in jail with Varela-Casaus, both of them on drug and related charges. According to court records, Varela-Casaus has been convicted of a variety of crimes, including prostitution.

Sotelo said Varela-Casaus referred to her as “mama,” and Sotelo regarded her and Varela-Casaus’ children as family.

Omaree, she said, was left in her care from mid 2006 through mid 2007.

Varela-Casaus took him back in 2008 and her second child was born in September 2008.

Essie Sotelo, center, flanked by grandchildren Emeerah Johnson, 6, left, and Amarah Smith, 10, reminisces about happier days raising Omaree Varela, who died Friday after an alleged beating from his biological mother. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Essie Sotelo, center, flanked by grandchildren Emeerah Johnson, 6, left, and Amarah Smith, 10, reminisces about happier days raising Omaree Varela, who died Friday after an alleged beating from his biological mother. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In May 2009, Smith, who lived in Phoenix, came to Albuquerque to visit her mother for the summer. Smith stayed at Varela-Casaus’ apartment. By the end of the summer, Smith alleges, Varela-Casaus was using drugs again, leaving the apartment and her children for extended periods of time. Smith and Sotelo continued to care for the children, and when it was time for Smith to return to Phoenix, Varela-Casaus asked her to take the children with her, Smith said.

By August 2009, Varela-Casaus was having second thoughts and asked for her children back. Sotelo traveled to Phoenix to pick up the children and bring them back to Varela-Casaus’ apartment, but she never showed up to take custody.

CYFD got involved in September of that year, and Sotelo asked for and was granted caretaker status of the two children. The CYFD letter, dated Sept. 16, 2009, states it is investigating an open case regarding Synthia Varela, and Omaree and Neviah, and recommends that the children stay with Essie Sotelo during the investigation.

Sotelo, who had been planning to move to Phoenix, later received a letter from Varela-Casaus, giving her permission to take the children to Arizona, which she did in January 2011.

According to Smith and Sotelo, two months later, in March 2011, CYFD contacted them and ordered the children back to Albuquerque. The children were returned that month and “that was the last time we saw them,” Smith said.

By this time, Varela-Casaus had a third child, a son, and was married to her current husband, Steven Casaus.

On Saturday morning, Sotelo and Smith learned of Omaree’s death during a phone call from a relative in Albuquerque. “We hopped in our pickup truck on Sunday and arrived in Albuquerque about 1 a.m. Monday,” Smith said.

“We had to come. We want to lay Omaree’s soul to rest and come up with the money to give this child a proper burial, and we want to take the other two children back with us and into a loving home. We’re the closest thing to a family they have and I’d hate to see these kids split up or sent to foster care when I am willing to take these kids back home with me and raise them as my own along with my three children and my stepchild. It would be a blessing to have them.”

The Albuquerque Police Department this weekend said CYFD had taken custody of the two children.

Journal Staff Writer Nicole Perez contributed to this report

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