Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
FIRST OF TWO PARTS: In 2009, a mother smothers her four-month-old boy. In 2011, Leland Valdez and Breandra Pena lose their lives. Last December, Omaree Varela is kicked to death. In February, a four-month-old named Izabella dies after being raped and beaten.
The high-profile deaths raise the same nagging questions: Could New Mexico’s child protective services and law enforcement have done more to try to save them? Are caseworkers and police moving aggressively enough to remove kids from abusive situations? And who, if anyone, monitors the abused and neglected children state protective services workers decide to leave at home?
In each of the five deaths, parents, boyfriends or caregivers were criminally charged. But all the children or their families had been the subject of prior investigations by the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
And that’s not so unusual.
A two-month Journal investigation found that while child abuse and neglect has surged in New Mexico, there is also a troubling trend of children being revictimized even after CYFD involvement.
Court-appointed special advocates assigned to cases of New Mexico foster children have also noticed a disturbing trend.
“What they (the advocates) are reporting is that when they get a case (of a child removed to foster care) it’s worse; the abuse has been going on for longer and the severity of the cases is just worse,” said Ezra Spitzer, executive director of the New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks.
While CYFD officials say foster care should be a last resort and can be traumatic for children already traumatized in their homes, there’s a dearth of information about the effectiveness of CYFD’s other option for at-risk families – allowing children to stay at home while their parents or caregivers participate in a voluntary in-home services program.
Over the past few years, the Legislative Finance Committee and the Civilian Review Board statewide committee have recommended a complete evaluation of the in-home services program, but CYFD officials say they haven’t done so because of difficulties extracting accurate data from their files.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers mindful of the Omaree Varela case, approved a memorial requiring CYFD to furnish data on child abuse cases and foster care. Two other measures aimed at preventing child abuse deaths – one proposed by the governor, the other by House Speaker W. Ken Martinez – died in committee.
How much abuse
CYFD officials say there’s no magic number of how many sustained reports of abuse or neglect trigger the agency to remove children and seek legal custody from the courts. That decision is based more on the results of safety assessments investigators conduct as part of their inquiries.
“We have to be considerate of what is in the best interest of children. And first and foremost it is in their best interest to be with those people who bore and raised them,” said CYFD Secretary Yolanda Berumen-Deines. “And only in those circumstances when those individuals are not able to assure the health and safety of those children should we move towards removal of those children.”
But the case of Omaree, who died after his mother allegedly kicked him as punishment on Dec. 27 in Albuquerque, had some state legislators questioning CYFD’s ability to make the right decisions.
“If you have a family and you have a kid complaining of abuse and exhibiting a certain evidence of abuse, you should err on the side of safety for this child,” said House Speaker Martinez, D-Grants.
He shepherded a bill though the House in the recent 30-day session that would have forced CYFD investigators to automatically take custody of a child if certain physical signs of abuse are evident.
The legislation would have required a court hearing within 48 hours to consider the evidence of abuse, and the child would have remained in CYFD custody if there were two substantiated abuse or neglect claims.
The measure, which passed the House 52-11, died in a Senate committee in the last week of the session.
When a complaint is made
In recent years, staff shortages have forced thousands of cases to remain open pending completion of the the proper administrative paperwork. In those pending cases, the determination of whether abuse or neglect has occurred has already been made by the caseworker, CYFD officials say.
It’s unclear whether CYFD sustained any of three prior abuse complaints involving Omaree Varela in the 18 months before his death. CYFD investigators look for credible evidence such as a statement from the victim or eyewitness, or a confession by the perpetrator.
Albuquerque police said the boy told officials at an Albuquerque school in October 2012 that his mother had struck him in the face with a home phone, causing a large bruise. He later changed his story after his mother arrived at school, a police report stated. He was not taken into custody.
“The biggest argument on the other side (during the legislative session) was, ‘oh, if you take a kid in, just that taking them in is harmful to the child.’ I don’t think it’s as harmful as death or great bodily injury,” Martinez said recently. “Omaree was begging someone to protect him.”
CYFD’s 550 caseworkers and supervisors who investigate child abuse and neglect face some of the bleakest working conditions around – in large part because there is so much child abuse and neglect in New Mexico.
The Administration for Children and Family of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services publishes annual child maltreatment reports with state-by-state comparisons. Editions for the federal fiscal years since 2009 showed:
Adding to that, the strained CYFD workforce has seen a 20 percent turnover rate in recent years, and a current backlog of unfinished investigations that hovers near 4,000.
Temporary workers have had to be hired. And overtime costs doubled from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2013, compared to the first six months of 2013, said Jared Rounsville, head of CYFD’s child protective services division.
Rounsville, who also served under Gov. Bill Richardson, told the Journal that a hard hiring freeze in the latter part of the Richardson administration “killed us and we’ve been trying to dig our way out ever since.”
Of the more than 18,197 allegations investigated by CYFD between July 2012 and June 2013, there were 7,788 children deemed to have been abused or neglected, CYFD records show.
“The challenge is when investigators have to pick up the caseloads of somebody who has left and then they get overwhelmed and exhausted and we end up losing some of those (employees),” Rounsville said in a Journal interview.
Caseworkers have 30 days to complete an investigation, with a 30 day extension if approved by a supervisor. In substantiated cases, families are sometimes referred to outside services or CYFD’s in-house services program. But participation is voluntary.
Once the case is closed, say CYFD officials, there’s usually no follow-up to ensure families stick with the plan.
“We can get them connected, we can make the first contact with service agencies, but the minute we close our investigation and are out of their lives, they can choose to just go back to what they were doing,” Deines said.
The Martinez administration this legislative session proposed allowing CYFD to use the court system as a lever to force families to engage in services, but that bill died in committee.
CYFD officials said they had no data on how many families referred for services ever obtain them, or whether they keep caregivers from reoffending.
Rounsville acknowledged that, with high vacancy rates, “they (caseworkers) are not going to be able to have as much time with families. They’re going to be more stretched.”
According to the LFC, the recurrence of abuse and neglect within six months of a previous report to CYFD is an important indicator of the effectiveness of the agency’s interventions with families.
But stopping the cycle of abuse and neglect, by preventing repeated cases of maltreatment, has become more difficult over the past year, CYFD records show.
New Mexico had set a goal that by June of this year, at least 92.8 percent of its child victims would not experience repeat maltreatment within six months of a prior substantiation.
In 2012, 27 states met the federal standard of 94.6 percent.
“Why it’s on the rise, I can’t predict human nature,” Rounsville said. “I can’t explain it either.”
But he said the increase wasn’t necessarily a reflection of how well his agency does its job. “That’s an outcome we have struggled to get higher,” he added.
After a substantiation of abuse or neglect, CYFD refers parents whose children are most at-risk for removal to the agency’s in-home services program.
“There’s no question, right? If you can work with a family to make a safe place for a kid,” said Spitzer,, “that’s the best place for a kid. But (once abuse or neglect is sustained) there’s no mechanism for us to check to make sure it’s going as it should and those services are as good as they should be. It’s just a piece we really haven’t shined a light on and we need to look at.”
The CYFD in-home services social workers, who are required to have a social worker’s degree, handle five to seven cases at a time. Families receive services for three to six months.
But such positions are difficult to fill because of the education requirements, Rounsville said. The unit has been operating with more than a dozen vacancies – roughly one-fourth of its total in-home services staff.
Rounsville said he didn’t know the percentage of all substantiated cases that are referred to in-home services, nor what percentage of all families offered the services don’t agree to them.
“I don’t have any data on that; I don’t think that’s anything that we track,” Rounsville added.
He said roughly 900 to 1,000 families volunteer for the program each year.
The LFC has reported that 40 percent of victims received in-home services in New Mexico compared to 60 percent nationally.
About half of the children CYFD has deemed to be abused or neglected remain at home each year, according to federal reports. “It’s a concern a lot of CASA (special advocates) programs have had for two or three years,” said Spitzer of the Children’s Networks. “They’re saying ‘You know what? These numbers (in foster care) are going down and we’re really scared about it.’ ”
Back in 2010, Rounsville told a legislative committee that the number of children in foster care was stable, even though investigations of child abuse were on the rise.
“In order to meet demands in an environment of reduced funds, the CYFD has worked hard to keep children in homes,” state minutes of a July 2010 meeting, quoting CYFD officials.
Rounsville said recently those comments came at a time of recession and state budget cutbacks. Lately, the numbers of children in foster care have increased, he added.
“Never was it ever a discussion that we would leave a child in an unsafe home to save money.”
Coming Monday: Two tragic cases underscore the challenges facing CYFD.