People who study child abuse distinguish physical abuse from emotional abuse.
Physical abuse is the hitting, biting and burning that leaves physical scars.
Emotional abuse is the belittling, threatening, humiliating and terrorizing that leaves scars buried inside a child.
Researchers have found that rates of physical child abuse have dropped in this country while rates of emotional child abuse have risen.
And they have found that the emotional and psychological abuse of a child actually produces the most long-lasting effects.
We know, from his mother’s own words, that Omaree Varela was kicked “the wrong way” on Dec. 27, the same day police found him cold and unresponsive at his home.
We know, from a doctor’s examination, that the 9-year-old had old wounds; he had been abused before.
We know, also, that Omaree told a police officer and a child protective services investigator a year before he died that his mother had hit him in the face with a telephone, opening up a cut on his face that a school staffer saw and reported to the authorities. He was named as a victim in an aggravated battery report, but no one was arrested.
Now we know, because someone in his household dialed 911 and kept the line open for 21 minutes, that Omaree was screamed at, sworn at, threatened, belittled and told he was a worthless mistake by some of the grownups in his life six months before he died.
The tape was first made public by reporter Nancy Laflin at KOAT-TV and aired at length in their broadcast. It is on the Journal’s website. If you think it’s too disturbing to listen to, listen to it anyway because it’s too disturbing to ignore.
Childhood is when future adults grow and learn and begin to form their assumptions about the world. We’d like to think that homes are warm places where kids feel safe and cared about.
But as Omaree’s 911 recording illuminates, sometimes homes are terror-riven prisons where unpredictable adults strike out with anger and frustration and manipulate with fear.
“You make everybody sick around you Omaree. Everybody! You make me and your mom (expletive) sick man! I can’t stand you Omaree.”
“You’re gonna be a dumb(expletive) all your life.”
“I hate your (expletive) face. I (expletive) hate that kid!”
“And you want me to be your dad? (Expletive) you! I ain’t gonna be (expletive) to you. Don’t you even (expletive) look at me as our dad. (Expletive) you Omaree! (Expletive) you!”
“Yeah, (expletive) beat the (expletive) out of you Omaree.”
“Shut the (expletive) up before I really pop you hard man.”
“You’re gonna learn, mother(expletive), one way or another if I gotta break your ass.”
Police presume the two adults heard on the tape are Synthia Varela-Casaus and her husband, Steve Casaus, Omaree’s stepfather.
Varela-Casaus is in jail pending trial on charges of child abuse resulting in death. Her court-appointed lawyer, Jeff Buckels, says we need to step back and stop jumping to conclusions about who she is and what happened and give her a fair trial.
We should. We should also listen carefully to the words she directed at her son when she thought she was in the privacy of her home and the words she allowed her son’s stepfather to use. And we should agree that they were disgusting.
And we should look at the public record that shows a 9-year-old child trying twice to ask people who wear badges and swear they will protect the vulnerable to help him.
Twice they left him in his prison of abuse.
No one can hurt Omaree Varela now. And no one can help him.
But we could have. And we can remember his words, “Stop, please!”
So much of what happens to children happens behind closed doors, but the door has been opened for a look inside Omaree’s home.
I’d like to see us gather at the next City Council meeting with the command staff from the Albuquerque Police Department, the mayor and the officers who responded to those calls and made no arrests, including the two now on administrative leave while city officials look into their handling of the 911 response. As an opening prayer, we can bow our heads and spend 20 minutes sitting together and listening to that tape. And then we can start a discussion about how we can teach angry adults how to be parents and how we can do a better job of listening to the brave kids who ask for help.