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Editorial: Find and plug gaps in child protection system

As investigations into Omaree Varela’s death continue, the focus needs to be on what clues were missed and what actions could or should have been taken to protect a 9-year-old who couldn’t protect himself.

Now agencies whose duties include protecting children are pointing fingers, saying each did what it was supposed to do. Yet at the end of the day, on Dec. 27, Omaree Varela had drawn his last breath and his mother was in jail where she is now charged with child abuse resulting in death.

Police say she admitted kicking the boy repeatedly, causing him to hit his head. Medical authorities found evidence of past and present injuries on his body.

Could the boy’s death have been prevented? That’s really the question. Now all parties need to work together better to protect other threatened children in New Mexico. One place to start would be to make sure communication and coordination between the state Children Youth and Families Department, law enforcement agencies, district attorney’s offices and school districts are as good as possible.

The Albuquerque Police Department and Albuquerque Public Schools reported their suspicions and investigations to CYFD and to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, which cannot locate any such reports. CYFD had investigated the family twice, the second time in 2012 when Omaree reported abuse to his school. Both cases eventually were closed.

CYFD says it doesn’t have the authority or resources to follow up on a family once a case is closed. Instead, it relies on schools, neighbors, relatives and friends for tips if suspected abuse continues. In other words, as the law now stands, absent new information it’s the job of the “village” to protect the child, not the agency’s.

Meanwhile, Gov. Susana Martinez, who says the blame for Omaree’s death lies squarely with the mother, has directed CYFD to conduct a full review of the case, which is the correct and appropriate action.

The governor also wants the Legislature to give CYFD more authority, including the ability to take custody of a child if a parent does not follow through with counseling or treatment after a CYFD investigation.

But with 15,000 to 18,000 cases of suspected abuse or neglect reported every year, many cases likely will turn out either to be unfounded or minor. So while legislators are right to carefully consider how much power should be given to a state agency to yank a child out of a home, it makes sense to allow the agency to at least be able to see if recommendations on issues are being followed.

Going forward, one possibility is for the agencies involved to agree on an outside investigation of Omaree’s case – perhaps by an attorney with experience in the field – and give that person or persons complete access and a charge to reconstruct where the system failed and recommend how to improve it.

Omaree’s death is a tragedy. It will be a greater one if the system can’t learn from mistakes made here so they are less likely to happen again. With more tragic consequences.

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.