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‘Omaree’s Law’ fails to get vote in Senate

SANTA FE – A child-protection proposal spawned by the recent death of an Albuquerque boy didn’t clear the Legislature before adjournment, but House leaders said Thursday that they’ll keep trying to figure out how to improve the system.

The bill, dubbed “Omaree’s Law” for 9-year-old Omaree Varela – whose mother is accused in his death – would have required the state to immediately take custody of children who show certain signs of abuse.

The bill passed the House on Tuesday, less than two days before the session’s end, and was not considered by the Senate.

“The bill was the beginning of that conversation” about emergency protection of children, said House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, who sponsored it.

Under the proposal, the Children Youth and Families Department, after a report of abuse, would have to take into custody kids with burns, bruises, bite marks and other specified injuries.

A hearing would be held within 48 hours to determine whether the children should be returned; in some cases, parents would be required to get counseling first.

According to an analysis done for lawmakers, the CYFD said the proposal would require a huge increase in its budget and staffing – an additional $600 million and 4,000 more workers.

The agency had more than 21,000 reports of alleged physical abuse last year; if half of those met the criteria in the bill, more than 10,000 children would have been in custody, the analysis said.

And CYFD said taking a child into custody – something that is now done only by police – can be dangerous and potentially violent.

“I think we need to have a major effort in this regard,” including studying the causes of the problems and reviewing what other states are doing, House Judiciary Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, told a news conference.

House Bill 333 was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee late Wednesday, by which time the panel had stopped hearing nearly all legislation. It was clear that the complex bill, with its constitutional implications, “required more than just passing consideration” at the end of a session, said the committee’s chief of staff, Philip Larragoite.

At a news conference after the session, Gov. Susana Martinez lamented that House Bill 298, which would have given CYFD more authority to make sure families investigated by the agency went to recommended counseling and treatment, did not pass the Legislature. It died in the House Judiciary Committee.

“I wish it had, because it gives more authority to CYFD to ensure the safety of children in their homes,” she said.

The Legislature passed a nonbinding memorial asking CYFD to provide lawmakers with data on foster children and the workload of the agency’s Protective Services Division.