ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Fallout from the Omaree Varela tragedy has shone a spotlight on the need in New Mexico for foster and adoptive families.
“On any given day, month or year we never know how many children may come into CYFD custody and be in need of a safe, loving and caring home,” says Henry Varela, spokesman for the Children, Youth and Families Department. “This is why we are continuously looking to recruit as many foster parents as possible throughout New Mexico to help these children.”
In March of this year, 2,124 New Mexico children were in foster care, 724 of them in Bernalillo County, he says. “Because of the uptick in numbers, we would like more foster parents statewide.”
These success stories show strong families forming, sometimes out of the rubble of sad beginnings similar to Omaree’s, sometimes because the adoptive parents saw a chance for a new and better beginning for a child or children who touched their hearts.
Breaking the cycle
Eleri-Clare Michaels-Northfield could have been another Omaree Varela, a child beaten to death while in the hands of those expected to protect her.
The 5-year-old girl, with impossibly long black eyelashes and metallic monogrammed sneakers, is a main focus of love and care from her Santa Fe adoptive family, which includes two moms, three older siblings (also adopted), and two younger ones (one adopted, one foster).
Her days are spent in rehabilitative programs that help her with speech, emotional attachment and vision. She goes to therapeutic equine, water and music programs both before and after going to school on the bus with a nurse. The medically fragile girl’s care team includes 30 therapists and other experts, and she can never be left alone.
Not with vision that for her is like looking through lace or Swiss cheese. Not with a history of brain bleeds and trauma-induced cerebral palsy that keeps her in diapers, unable to walk or talk. She relies on a feeding tube for nutrition, and wore a helmet for a year to reshape her head, which was wedge-shaped from all the trauma. She uses braces on her torso, hands and legs.
Looking over her daughter, lying in a hospital bed at University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital for a few days late last month, Pam Michaels pats Eleri’s hands, covered with mittens to prevent her from hurting herself, and tells her, “You are clearly the cutest child on the planet.”
When Eleri was 3 months old, her biological parents called an ambulance after observing that her eyes were fixed, her head turned to the side and her body slack. An ambulance rushed her to Christus St. Vincent’s Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe.
She flat-lined on the way, but paramedics revived her. She was medically evacuated from there to UNM Hospital. She flat-lined again in flight.
A forensic pediatrician diagnosed Eleri’s limb and rib fractures, more than two dozen of them in the places babies don’t break bones and not all of them fresh, as being non-accidental trauma.
She spent several weeks in the hospital’s Intensive Care and Rehabilitation units.
Michaels and her wife, Karan Northfield, who had already adopted and fostered other children, were asked by CYFD to consider fostering the baby.
When they went to see her, Northfield held her first. Two minutes later, Eleri “sighed and turned her face into Karan’s chest and settled in,” Michaels recalls.
“We knew from that moment we would do whatever we could to maximize her recovery.”
Why? Because helping Eleri get better makes everyone around her better, Michaels says, explaining why she and her wife have devoted themselves to her care.
“Every time you impact the life of one person in a positive way, you impact the lives of every person they touch for the rest of their lives,” she says. “So when you break the cycle of abuse or change somebody’s life for the better, they are going to more positively impact everybody else they come in contact with.”
Michaels, a work-at-home technical writer/full-time mother, is a constant presence with Eleri. She took up residence in University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital until Eleri was ready to go home with them at 4 months old.
Last month, she also slept on a bed in the hospital’s pediatric wing as Eleri recovered from a procedure during which a pump was surgically implanted into her abdomen so that spasticity-reducing medication is more effective.
“It’s a hard, horrible story to hear,” Michaels says, her eyes welling up, of what her daughter has been through.
Even though the 5-year-old girl cannot speak, she smiles and touches hands with a new visitor. She looks up at her mother when she hears her voice. She is experiencing a reduction in brain injury-related seizures, of which she used to have 100 a day.
Her mothers and siblings have figured out her signals. She expresses herself by banging gently or aggressively on the piano keyboard at home, and when she does therapeutic horseback riding, her facial expressions and body positions suggest relaxation.
“There’s never a day when she’s not doing therapy,” Michaels says. “This child never gets a break.”
Even if Eleri cannot say so, “she is acutely aware of what others can do and she can’t,” Michaels says.
Part of a village
Mateo Walsh, now 8, was just a toddler when his parents lost custody of him. Now he and his brother Joaquin, 7, live with their adoptive mother, Megan Walsh, 40, in Albuquerque.
“They had a chaotic family environment,” Walsh explains one afternoon while watching her sons play on sliding boards in an Albuquerque park. “They cared about them, but because of their own challenges, they weren’t able to provide a safe environment.”
That’s when Walsh stepped up. She’d fostered one boy, but she knew it wasn’t going to be a lifelong match; he was later adopted by another mother with whom Walsh keeps in contact through Facebook.
She then fostered Mateo and Joaquin, who are half-black and half-Hispanic, when they were 2 and 3 years old. She knew from the start they felt like hers.
Single and wanting to be a parent, she says, “It was important to me to be a mom; it wasn’t important to me how that came about.” The adoption was finalized when they were 3 and 4 years old.
“It opened my eyes to how challenging and how rewarding parenting can be,” Walsh says.
Walsh is a social worker whose full-time job as adoption services director at La Familia-Namaste in Albuquerque is to coordinate a program that creates community for local fostering and adoptive families. Because her job calls for her to coordinate events where families with adoptive children spend time together, Walsh already knew lots of families into which a child or children had been adopted.
She’s since introduced so many of them to Joaquin and Mateo, she says, that her kids have come to think of families like theirs as more typical than families where children were not adopted into them.
Already having become part of that network, Walsh knew she could parent without biological family to rely on in town – she’s from Washington and sees her folks twice a year. She’s discovered that the community around her would pitch in to create a village for her children to grow up in.
Of the two boys, Mateo is more athletic and outspoken, while Joaquin is more artistic and reserved. They both go to Corrales International School, which has a Spanish/English immersion program. They are bilingual, but they like to tell new people about themselves in English.
When asked his favorite thing to do, Mateo says: “One? I have a lot!” He notes building Legos and eating orange chicken and fried rice as list-toppers.
“I have a big appetite!” he says. “I like carrots, sometimes broccoli. Cauliflower, usually I don’t. Calamari! I love it! Put it down!” he says, pointing a finger at the notebook into which a reporter was making a list.
The only thing the boy doesn’t seem to like is solitude. “I get uncomfortable when I’m alone,” he says.
His brother, whose favorite activities are jumping rope and painting, loves ramen noodles, artichokes, ice cream and pot stickers. He has a few pet peeves as well. “I’m afraid of squirrels and clowns. They’re freaky. They have red paint on their nose, and if it comes off it looks like they’re bleeding.”
They share a room in a home that includes Walsh, their dog Sadie, their cat Kitten, and 25 fish, all of whom have names. When asked how they tell them apart, Joaquin says: “We don’t! We just guess.”
Mateo has few memories of his biological mother, whom he hasn’t seen in three or four years. When she crosses his mind, he sometimes cries and he prays for her as his adoptive mom has encouraged him to do, “to help her brain get better and better, and to help her,” he says. He and Joaquin maintain limited, safe contact with her, Walsh said.
Meanwhile, she remains a single mother, and says that her criteria for a partner has gotten more selective, since she has her sons’ welfare to consider now. “My whole world surrounds them,” she says.
An adopted son’s story
DeSean Payne was born in jail 23 years ago. Now, he works at Costco and plans to become a journalist.
What happened in between? The good-natured, quick-to-laugh young man was born to a teen-age mother who would bounce in and out of lock-ups and struggled with addiction to illegal drugs. He entered the foster care system, a bumpy path that included between six and eight foster placements, a few of which left a fragment of a memory.
“I remember getting a smiley face sticker while sitting in the back seat of a police car,” most likely during the transport from one foster placement to another, he says. “I was only 3 or 4.”
His final transport was back to Frank and Donna Payne. (The Payne family is profiled in today’s Journal on Page A1.) The family had fostered him, two of his brothers, and his older sister, previously. At the time of his 1995 adoption the family lived in Tijeras; they now live in Northeast Albuquerque.
The family includes three of DeSean’s biological siblings who the Paynes adopted, as well as Frank and Donna’s three biological children, and another adopted girl, now 5.
The eight-sibling strong Payne family is a tight unit, even though other people might not understand their connection. The adopted children in the Payne family are black, and the Payne parents and their two biological sons and one biological daughter are white.
“My family comes to visit me at work,” DeSean says of the job he has at Costco, a midway point between moving out on his own and someday returning to college and pursuing a career in journalism.
“I’m like, ‘That’s my sister. That’s my mom.’ I don’t give it a second thought … For some reason I always embraced being different,” he says. “It didn’t really affect me.”
That’s probably because he has always wanted to see what other people were doing, and possibly try doing it himself. When his mother offered to home school him, he said no way. Family lore has it that DeSean was so enthusiastic about going to school that the only time he missed it was when he’d be in the bedroom he shared with a brother or two, reading a book while waiting for the bus to arrive.
He still loves to read. When he is not hanging out with his friends or family or performing in a play produced by Blackout Theater downtown, he is usually at home reading a Stephen King book, or experimenting with new authors. “I try to read something different every week,” he says.
In high school, he took journalism courses for three years, then he went to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and found himself a spot on the school newspaper. His forté: “anything controversial.” When he heard a claim of election rigging in the run for a spot on the school Senate, “I hopped on that story right away.” He wants to finish his college degree – he has two years left to complete a B.A., he says.
Although he was legally adopted in 1995, “for the most part, I was always just part of the family, so I never felt like I needed anything (special to mark the occasion). I don’t remember it too well.”
He says he is closest to his biological sister Shanté, and his adoptive father, Frank Payne, is “probably one of the people I respect most in this world; he’s always made a point to say how proud he is of me whenever I don’t feel good about myself.”
People may wonder how his family came together, but that doesn’t matter to him. “It’s been my world,” he says, chuckling. “I’m so used to people not being used to this idea that it’s just second nature for me to not really care.”