He is the name and face of innocence destroyed.
Even in a nation bombarded with what seem like constant media reports of child abuse, the death of little Omaree Varela one year ago Saturday was shocking.
Shocking because of the brutality of the beating the 9-year-old boy is alleged to have endured at the hands of his mother, and shocking because of the missed opportunities to intervene and rescue him from the adults in his life.
If any good can come from the violent death of a child, it’s that sweeping reforms were ordered at the state Children, Youth and Families Department; the Albuquerque Police Department implemented training to better prepare officers responding to and investigating cases of child abuse and neglect; and public awareness about the issue was elevated, resulting in ever more calls to CYFD and police.
The odds were stacked against Omaree from the time he was born in 2004, while his mother, Synthia Varela, was in prison on drug trafficking charges. Both she and Steven Casaus, her husband at the time of Omaree’s death, have extensive drug and criminal histories going back decades.
Omaree had been on CYFD’s radar since at least 2009, when he was placed with a guardian family. CYFD and APD subsequently had multiple interactions with the family over the years at the child’s home and school.
Omaree became a household name after Dec. 27 last year, when police and paramedics responded to a 911 call from a home in the 4900 block of Comanche NE.
There, they found the child cold and unresponsive. His mother initially told police her son was thrown to the floor from a toy spring horse. Later, while being escorted from a police car into the Prisoner Transport Center in Downtown Albuquerque, she commented to waiting reporters: “I was disciplining him, and I kicked him the wrong way. It was an accident.”
A 30-page autopsy report released months later showed Omaree was kicked and stomped repeatedly, and with enough force to cause injury to his head, chest, back and abdomen. About 25 percent of his blood volume was lost to internal bleeding, it said, and signs of previous physical abuse were noted.
The highly publicized and emotionally charged case of Omaree “definitely was a game-changer,” said Krisztina Ford, chief executive officer of All Faiths, a behavioral health agency that works with traumatized and abused children.
“The media got involved, pushing the community to get concerned, which forced government officials and decision-makers to institute changes,” she said. “All Faiths’ involvement with child abuse cases comes through our forensic interview program. We do over 1,000 interviews a year but, after the Omaree case, we saw about a 20 percent spike.”
What that means, Ford said, is that Omaree’s case resonated with the public, making people more sensitive to suspected child abuse “and more willing to call such incidents to the attention of law enforcement and CYFD.”
No disagreement there, said CYFD spokesman Henry Varela (no relation to Omaree). The death of the child was “a very tragic situation that opened New Mexicans’ eyes to child abuse and neglect, and throughout 2014 increased reports to CYFD about suspected abuse and neglect.”
In the 12 months preceding Omaree’s death last December, 32,318 cases of child abuse and neglect were reported to CYFD. Of those, 19,288 were screened for further investigation.
From January through November 2014, CYFD received 35,526 reports of child abuse or neglect, of which 19,938 were screened for more examination. CYFD estimates it will receive another 2,500 to 3,000 reports by the end of December, he said.
Further, Henry Varela noted, Omaree’s death sparked comprehensive changes to the child welfare system through executive orders issued by Gov. Susana Martinez in April.
It wasn’t until the release of an autopsy report on Omaree’s death, confirming signs of previous physical abuse, that it was also revealed that CYFD had nine previous referrals about the boy and his family, but only two of them were substantiated. Until that report, CYFD had not acknowledged the extent of its history with the family.
CYFD officials repeatedly said that provisions in the state’s Children’s Code precluded them from releasing information. The agency also said that, at the time of Omaree’s death, it did not have an active and open case file on the boy or his family.
Whether CYFD should have had an active and open file on Omaree has been the subject of much opinion and speculation about missed opportunities for intervention. It also triggered Martinez’s ordering of a review of CYFD’s handling of the case.
As a result of that review, Martinez embraced a child welfare model that puts caseworkers, police officers, sexual assault nurse examiners and other specialists under the same roof in Child Advocacy Centers.
In September, the first of them opened in Valencia County, which was selected because it has a high per capita rate of child abuse or neglect investigations, and is one of the highest risk and highest need areas in the state for child welfare services.
The governor has said she hopes funding will be made available from the Legislature to set up Child Advocacy Centers around the state.
Martinez also ordered that a similar and already existing Albuquerque Family Advocacy Center be permanently staffed with CYFD caseworkers, who are now working alongside police and child abuse specialists.
Other reforms ordered by the governor include:
- Requiring CYFD case workers to seek police reports and related material on a case before rendering an investigative decision; and that state police and other law enforcement agencies under Martinez’s direction provide CYFD with information on child abuse cases in a timely fashion.
- Requiring all officers dispatched to a child abuse incident to call CYFD’s statewide Central Intake Center to determine the number and nature of prior CYFD interactions with the child and family.
- Requiring cases involving families with more than one CYFD investigation to be reviewed at the supervisory level.
- Creating a new category of family support social workers to interact with families who have had three or more CYFD child welfare investigations.
- Addressing issues of high burnout and turnover at CYFD by hiring a specialist to recruit new caseworkers and providing raises for case workers – about 7 percent in calendar year 2014.
The Albuquerque Police Department was also on the receiving end of criticism for the way officers responded to calls about the suspected child abuse – both at Omaree’s school and his home.
Five APD officers were disciplined, including a supervisory sergeant. One of the officers was later fired, while others received punishments ranging from suspensions to letters of reprimand.
In June 2013, six months before Omaree’s death, a 911 operator recorded a 20-minute phone call made from the Varela/Casaus home, in which Steven Casaus directed an abusive and obscenity-laden verbal tirade against the boy.
It’s not clear who made the call and no one speaks directly to the operator, who continued monitoring it. It appears the adults in the home were unaware they were being recorded. Two APD officers went to the home but did not listen to the recorded phone call first, as requested by the emergency operator.
Lapel camera video shows that neither of the officers asked to speak to Omaree or his siblings alone and one of the officers even commented, “You guys seem like a good family, a decent family,” and then reminds the adults to be careful about what they say around children.
“I’m going to overlook it right now,” the officer tells them.
The officers took no further action. They were at the home for no more than 20 minutes, despite telling dispatch they were clearing from the scene an hour and 45 minutes after they arrived.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry formed a task force of APD representatives and child abuse experts to look at better ways of investigating, reporting and preventing child abuse. The task force was headed by former APD commander Marie “Sisi” Miranda of Miranda Investigative Resources. Chief among its recommendations was that APD offer more intensive training on child abuse for all Albuquerque police cadets and train up to 40 patrol officers as child abuse response evaluators.
“The CARE team is designed to bring a consistent response to child abuse and child-related calls from a field level,” said Sgt. Richard Evans of APD’s Crimes Against Children Unit. “The officers receive specialized training on recognizing signs of child abuse and how to conduct a preliminary investigation.”
CARE officers send their reports to CACU, he said, “where they are tracked to assist in identifying families in crisis” and those who are reported multiple times.
Further, Evans said, CACU has improved record sharing with CYFD and the District Attorney’s Office, and CYFD’s move of investigators into the Albuquerque Family Advocacy Center “has improved coordinating investigations and records sharing, as well as communication.”
Meanwhile, Synthia Varela-Casaus and Steven Casaus were both indicted for child abuse resulting in death and a host of other charges. They are currently in jail and awaiting trial.
Omaree’s younger siblings, ages 3 and 6, are in the custody of CYFD, which has placed them in foster care with family members.
Omaree Varela is buried in a sunny and peaceful corner at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Albuquerque. There was no obituary marking his death and funeral last year, but the family placed a memorial poem in Saturday’s Albuquerque Journal obituary page. A line in the poem reads: “He touched so many lives, he made us see the light.”