APD looking into why; police report expressed concern for boy’s safety
An Albuquerque police officer told an investigator for the state Children, Youth and Families Department that she was concerned about Omaree Varela’s safety at home with his mother after the boy reported abuse in 2012.
But the officer did not remove the child from his mother’s care. And according to her report, after consulting with prosecutors, she did not arrest the mother for child abuse.
The CYFD investigator didn’t believe it was necessary to put the boy on a 48-hour hold, according to the officer’s report, but CYFD spokesman Henry Varela (no relation) said Wednesday that police don’t need the agency’s permission to remove a child they believe is in immediate danger until law enforcement and CYFD complete their investigations.
An APD spokeswoman said Wednesday the department was looking into why that measure wasn’t taken.
Omaree died last month after being repeatedly kicked by his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, police say, and she has been charged with child abuse resulting in death.
Examined at a local hospital, doctors said the boy’s body had signs of past as well as current injuries, including cigarette burns and a bite mark.
According to the APD report taken on Oct. 20, 2012, Omaree Varela had told a school official that his mother had hit him in the face with a home telephone, causing a large, swollen bruise above his right eye. In addition, the boy showed a large bruise extending from his right hip to his upper thigh, which he said was from his mother striking him with a belt.
The APD report, written by officer Jennifer Jara, said that by the time she arrived at Hodgin Elementary School, where the third-grader reported to school officials that his mother had abused him, he was sitting and speaking to his mother.
“I made my way to the office where (the child) was waiting, with his family,” Jara wrote in her report. “I was shocked at this because they were sitting together and talking and this struck me as odd. In my experience with situations of this kind, I have never encountered the parents and CYFD altogether, without an officer first being able to interview each subject separately. I was advised that the mother had already been interviewed and advised of the situation, and clearly had access to the child before I was able to interview him.”
Varela said Wednesday that the agency’s policy of keeping an allegedly abused child separated from the alleged abuser during an interview extends only to the CYFD investigator.
“Law enforcement also has the ability to separate them during their interviews,” he said, but they do not always conduct such questioning and often rely on the CYFD interview “so as to minimize the trauma to the child.”
Regardless, after speaking with his mother, Jara wrote in her report, Omaree Varela changed his story, saying that his younger brother was running toward the street in front of their home and he ran after him, accidentally falling into a tree, causing his eye and hip injuries. Jara wrote in her report that the mark on the boy’s hip instead looked as if he had been “struck by an object,” and it “was clearly not an abrasion.”
Assisting APD officer Sally Gallosa wrote in her report that Omaree Varela told her that the injury near his eye occurred when he fell down while playing basketball with his younger brother.
Jara also interviewed Varela-Casaus, who told her the boy’s eye injury was caused by his 17-month-old brother striking him with a plastic bat and his hip injury was caused by falling while chasing the younger boy outside in the yard.
Jara said in her report that Verala-Casaus was “jumpy and jittery and would not stop talking.” She called her son a “liar,” said he had a “mental illness,” and that he was lying because she had earlier threatened to call CYFD and have him taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation.
Jara wrote in her report that she advised CYFD investigator Elizabeth Du Passage that she did not feel Omaree Varela was safe at home with his mother. “However she (Du Passage) did not address my safety concerns, nor did she agree with them because she did not feel it necessary to place him on a 48 hour hold.”
Jara’s report also said she contacted Deputy District Attorney Lisa Trabaudo and explained the situation. Based on what Trabaudo told her, as well as inconsistent stories about Omaree Varela’s injuries, Jara did not make an arrest. Instead, she wrote, that the report would be submitted to the District Attorney’s Office for “further investigation.”
However, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Kari Brandenburg clarified Wednesday that her office does not do investigations; rather it assists law enforcement in their investigations by providing legal advice. She said the officer probably meant that the report would be submitted for further evaluation.
In any event, she noted, “we never got the report, we can’t find it anywhere, and it is my understanding that they can’t provide any documentation that they sent the report to us.”
Neither did the DA’s Office get a report from CYFD, but under normal circumstances it would only get a report from CYFD upon request, and it doesn’t request that report until it reviews the report from law enforcement, Brandenburg said.
“I feel certain that the DA’s Office did not drop the ball, but this matter is too important to play the blame game. There’s something all of us can learn from this case so we can protect other children who may be in a similar situation in the future.”