A year before 9-year-old Omaree Varela died at the hands of his biological mother, he had disclosed physical abuse to school authorities, according to documents located by Albuquerque police detectives.
“In that investigation, the officers spoke with CYFD, school authorities and followed up with the District Attorney’s Office,” Albuquerque Police spokeswoman Tasia Martinez said Thursday. “APS did report the disclosure to CYFD, just to be clear.”
No other details of those allegations were available Thursday.
CYFD spokesman Henry Varela said, “Yes, a report was made and investigated by CYFD, and we made an official report to the crimes against children’s unit at APD.” Varela said he could not comment further.
Jared Rounsville, director of the state Children Youth and Family Department’s Protective Services Division, reiterated earlier Thursday that the department “did not have an active and open case on the family” at the time of Omaree’s death last Friday.
In the meantime, Gov. Susana Martinez “has directed CYFD to conduct a full review of this case,” said Enrique Knell, the governor’s director of communications.
The alleged abuse mentioned by APD was referenced in the criminal complaint filed against Synthia Varela-Casaus, who allegedly kicked her son repeatedly, causing his death. She has been charged with child abuse resulting in death and is being held on a $100,000 cash-only bond.
According to that criminal complaint, “Synthia Varela advised officers that the family has a case with CYFD in reference to O.V. (Omaree Varela) making threats to harm himself. Officers investigated this allegation and were advised O.V. disclosed physical abuse.”
Doctors who examined the child’s body at an area hospital said it showed signs of current and past injuries, including bruising, cigarette burns and a bite mark.
A family who cared for Omaree on and off over several years came forward after his death, questioning how CYFD handled the case. A copy of a CYFD document provided by that family indicates that CYFD investigated Varela in 2009 and had named Essie Sotelo as the caretaker for the child and his younger sister, Neviah Varela.
That document states that pending an investigation and assessment, the biological mother and Neviah’s biological father were not to take the children into their care.
Sotelo and her daughter, Shana Smith, said they had been raising the children at their home in Phoenix, where they had moved with Synthia Varela’s written approval, until March 2011. They said that’s when CYFD contacted them and told them the children were to be returned to the custody of their biological mother in Albuquerque.
Rounsville said that if CYFD ever had an open and active case involving the family, it would have been handled as prescribed under the Children’s Code and according to CYFD policies and procedures.
So how does it work? Rounsville breaks it down this way:
CYFD initiates an investigation after receiving a report indicating a child is not safe or not being cared for properly. That information can come from immediate members of the child’s family, other relatives, neighbors, friends, school teachers, medical personnel or law enforcement officers.
The information is screened by case workers at CYFD’s Statewide Central Intake office where a determination is made concerning which cases are legitimate and need follow up. Those cases are ranked as either “emergency,” meaning they must be responded to by a CYFD field investigator within 3 hours; “Priority 1,” meaning a response is required within 24 hours; or “Priority 2,” requiring a response within five days.
The cases are then farmed out to one of 25 CYFD field offices around the state.
Field office case workers are required to make face-to-face contact with the victim within the prioritized time, and not in the presence of the alleged abuser.
“If it is determined that a child is in immediate danger, the case worker can call for a police officer, and if the officer agrees with that assessment the officer can remove the child on a 48-hour hold and place the child in our custody,” Rounsville said. CYFD does not have the authority to remove a child from a home. Conversely, police officers can alert CYFD to a situation concerning a child’s safety and are not required to get CYFD’s authorization for removal.
Whether a child is removed or not, Rounsville said, “we continue our investigation and interview other children in the home, parents, caregivers, relatives, neighbors, teachers, doctors – depending on what the allegation and scenario is. We want to make sure that there isn’t other information from other people that had not initially been made available to us.”
All of that information is factored in when trying to substantiate an allegation, he said.
A child placed on a 48-hour hold is normally placed with a licensed foster family. During that time, CYFD can decide if it wants to petition the District Court for extended custody.
“Reunification is always our first priority, and if that doesn’t work out and we have to terminate parental rights, that usually happens within 15 months, which gives parents or caretakers enough time to get the help they need to get the child back,” Rounsville said.
Exactly what a parent or caregiver needs to do to regain custody is spelled out in a court-ordered treatment plan that could include things like undergoing random drug testing, anger management or domestic violence counseling, taking parenting courses, demonstrating an ability to hold a job, obtaining a safe living environment for children and maintaining a visitation schedule.