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Cycle of abuse, part 2: Two cases, two deaths; who’s to blame?

Leland Valdez

Leland Valdez

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

LELAND VALDEZ

LELAND VALDEZ

BREANDRA PENA

BREANDRA PENA

Seven months before 17-month-old Breandra Peña was shaken by her ears and beaten to death, an investigator with the state Children, Youth and Families Department was on the phone with her mother trying to arrange a meeting.

At first, the mother, Melissa Romero, asked the investigator to call back, but then didn’t answer the phone. When the investigator called from a different phone number, Romero picked up. But after finding the CYFD investigator on the line, she cut the conversation short and hung up, according to an internal CYFD report reviewed by the Journal.

Despite numerous inquiries in the fall of 2010, the report shows, the investigator never located Melissa Romero or her daughter. So allegations of physical neglect involving the child were deemed unsubstantiated.

Authorities found the child unresponsive in an Española home of Romero’s cousin on Mar. 8, 2011 – the same day the CYFD investigator, 88 miles away in Bernalillo County, completed a child safety assessment on Breandra.

“The child(ren) is/are safe,” states the box checked on the assessment form. “There are NO safety threats placing the child(ren) in immediate danger.”

The records don’t explain why the assessment was completed so many months after the neglect investigation. They also don’t show why the CYFD investigator believed the child was safe.

A phone call to the investigator, who still works for CYFD’s child protective services division in Albuquerque, prompted her supervisor to refer the Journal to Henry Valdez, CYFD spokesman.

Citing confidentiality laws, Valdez said last week he couldn’t answer specific questions about the CYFD investigation.

Breandra’s case, at the very least, exemplifies the challenges CYFD caseworkers encounter day to day. It also shows how the state’s safety net designed to protect children from harm sometimes fails miserably.

Deadly incident

On the day of her death, Breandra was in the care of a cousin of Melissa Romero’s, whose live-in boyfriend, Nathan L. Montoya, was watching the child.

An autopsy found some 40 to 50 bruises on the girl’s body along with internal injuries and bleeding in her abdomen and brain.

Montoya, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2012, told police he had shaken the baby by her ears for 30 seconds to stop her from crying.

CYFD undertook another investigation of Romero after her daughter’s death, records show. But there wasn’t enough information to prove she knew there were problems with supervision in the home where her daughter died.

Therefore, records show, another allegation that she neglected Breandra was unsubstantiated. The Journal couldn’t reach Romero for comment.

Months after the toddler’s death, state Legislative Finance Committee evaluators issued a report in June 2011 on the state’s Child Protective Services division, warning of “dangerously high caseloads.”

CYFD officials responded at the time that reasonable caseloads were key to ensuring child safety, but noted that staffing levels were hurt by recession-era budget cuts and a hiring freeze enacted under former Gov. Bill Richardson.

“Vacancies begat additional vacancies as staff felt the enormous pressure of growing caseloads and the assumption of additional duties,” CYFD Secretary Yolanda Berumen-Deines said in a written response to the LFC.

Gov. Susana Martinez took office on Jan. 1, 2011, and Berumen-Deines told the legislative committee that CYFD was allowed to begin hiring caseworkers early that year.

But Berumen-Deines added that “significant burnout has been created and many experienced staff continue to report they are overwhelmed.”

CYFD Protective Services Director Jared Rounsville, originally appointed during the Richardson administration, told the Journal that since Martinez took office, some 300 caseworkers have been hired. But during that time, nearly the same number have quit.

Turnover has been as high as 20 percent system-wide, and up to 25 percent in certain CYFD field offices.

In some New Mexico counties, according to employee union officials, caseworkers are assigned between 20 and 30 cases a month. The national standard is 12 cases.

“Some weeks,” according to Patrick Gutierrez, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18, “workers see six to nine assignments in one week.”

CYFD officials say the statewide average is from 12 to 15 cases a month.

After the violent death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in Albuquerque last December, the Martinez administration proposed and the Legislature approved an additional 3 percent pay increase for CYFD investigative caseworkers on top of the 3 percent approved for all state workers.

Overwhelmed

Boosting compensation can help in recruitment and retention, said Patrick Tyrrell, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, a national professional group.

Also important is having competent, experienced supervisors, said Tyrrell, a former child welfare caseworker.

“Sometimes you find yourself in situations where individuals have worked for the department for a short period of time and you have a couple of resignations and then you have a situation where somebody who’s really not ready to be a supervisor then is elevated to supervisor,” he said. “That’s such a critical element in the success of somebody working in a protective services position.”

One-time investigations supervisor Gabrielle James had been informing her superiors at CYFD since 2009 that she “felt overwhelmed in her position,” according to documents filed in the state district court appeal of her termination in 2011.

James was fired after the January 2011 death of 3-year-old Leland Valdez of Pojoaque, who suffered severe injuries to his head and body.

James, based in the Santa Fe County CYFD office, oversaw an abuse investigation involving the boy in August 2010.

The abuse investigation was triggered after the discovery of severe bruising on the child’s thigh. But the allegation wasn’t substantiated by a CYFD investigator who reported to James.

CYFD records show that after working on the case for about six weeks, the CYFD investigator couldn’t determine who caused the injury. James concurred with the assessment.

“James was accused of failing to find child abuse and that this failure caused the child’s death,” states her attorney Diane Garrity in the state court appeal of James’ termination.

At the time, there wasn’t a clear CYFD policy on how to proceed in cases where the perpetrator of the abuse couldn’t be determined, wrote Garrity, a former CYFD general counsel.

These days, such cases would result in CYFD sustaining a complaint against the child’s parents for lack of supervision or neglect, CYFD officials said.

But back then, according to the appeal, CYFD admitted that its policy on what to do when a perpetrator can’t be identified needed clarification and more training of caseworkers was ordered.

The CYFD investigator who reported to James received a five-day suspension for his role, the appeal states, and transferred to another state agency.

Unfair discipline?

Meanwhile, Leland’s mother, Tabetha Van Holtz, and her then-boyfriend, Steven Gallegos, have yet to be tried on charges of intentional child abuse resulting in death and negligent child abuse.

They contended the boy fell off a kitchen chair and started “having seizures and convulsions,” according to a probable cause statement for their arrests. But the injuries were inconsistent with that version of events and his body was covered with old injuries, a hospital doctor told authorities.

Garrity contends in court records that the boy’s living circumstances changed after CYFD closed the case, and CYFD wasn’t notified.

“James was supposed to have a crystal ball, telepathic powers and the power of CYFD’s 20/20 hindsight to predict LV’s demise five months later,” her appeal states. “James was supposed to be perfect for 69 cases per month on average, 47 in August (2010) and 98 in September, with 2-3 investigators full time.”

No other CYFD employee in the prior two years had been disciplined for misconduct and fired because of a failure to substantiate or because a child previously on CYFD’s radar was killed, Garrity said in the appeal.

The appeal contends CYFD fired James, not because of the boy’s death, but because James was also a foster mother and had a substantiated abuse referral against her.

New Mexico Administrative Law Judge Teresa Martinez ruled in December 2011 that James was entitled to unemployment benefits.

She noted in her written ruling that James, a 10-year employee with CYFD, had been disciplined for poor job performance several weeks before her agency received the abuse complaint on Leland in August 2010.

“Here, a child died at the hands of individuals who should have loved and protected him,” Martinez wrote in her ruling. “This terrible incident cries out for justice and vengeance so we look for individuals whom we can hold accountable. …

“However, the evidence and testimony produced by the employer merely substantiates that (James) was an extremely incompetent individual who perhaps should have never been entrusted with a high-trust position like investigations supervisor.”

CYCLE OF ABUSE

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