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State faulted in death of Omaree

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

State child welfare officials so thoroughly bungled oversight and care for the safety of 9-year-old Omaree Varela and his sister that they created the danger that allowed him to be killed by his mother and stepfather, a new lawsuit alleges.

Two social workers and five John Does at the Children, Youth and Families Department are named in a complaint alleging civil rights violations and wrongs that it says were unlawful, deliberate, malicious, reckless, wanton and conscience-shocking.

OMAREE: Nine-year-old was killed in late 2013 (Courtesy of Shana Smith)

OMAREE: Nine-year-old was killed in late 2013 (Courtesy of Shana Smith)

The suit was filed on behalf of Omaree’s sister, N.V., and Omaree’s estate by attorneys Michael Hart, Kelly Stout Sanchez and Andrew Schultz, who have been piecing together what happened to the children since soon after Omaree’s death on Dec. 27, 2013.

The lawsuit alleges the social workers failed to exercise professional judgment and created and increased the danger to the children.

It also claims the CYFD employees denied the children protections they were due by law by denying them the scrutiny of the courts.

CYFD spokesman Henry Varela said the Children’s Code bars any comment on allegations regarding a particular child.

Omaree’s mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, is awaiting trial in the boy’s death. Her competence to stand trial is in dispute and will be subject to a hearing beforehand.

Omaree’s stepfather, Steve Casaus, has been convicted of child abuse with reckless disregard resulting in Omaree’s death.

History of drugs

The problems started even before Omaree was born, because Varela-Casaus was using crack cocaine during her pregnancy, and delivered him prematurely while she was in prison in Grants, according to the complaint.

Varela-Casaus gave power of attorney to two women relatives to care for him while she completed her sentence, but there were allegations of physical and medical neglect within a month.

CYFD substantiated the allegations, but later dismissed the case and returned Omaree to the women after he spent a month in foster care.

Use of crack cocaine by Varela-Casaus was a recurrent theme in allegations of neglect that, though frequent, were often unsubstantiated.

When Varela-Casaus disappeared for days at a time from the home that she shared with Omaree and his sister in 2009, Essie Sotelo, the mother of a woman Varela-Casaus had befriended in jail, stepped up to care for the children. That summer, Varela-Casaus wrote a statement saying she wanted Sotelo to continue caring for them.

In September 2009, CYFD social worker Joe Roybal, a defendant in the lawsuit, wrote a memo on department letterhead saying Varela-Casaus was being investigated because she had been using drugs and hadn’t been home. Sotelo was designated as caretaker for the children.

Varela-Casaus then decided she wanted the children back, and Sotelo, worried about them, called Roybal.

Roybal prepared a “to whom it may concern” memorandum that named her the caretaker “until interviews and assessments of (the parents’) caretaking ability can be completed.”

But no court had authorized the placement with Sotelo, nor did it comply with the New Mexico Children’s Code – meaning the state had taken custody of the children without following the law.

Sotelo kept in touch with Roybal as she moved between New Mexico and Arizona, enrolled Omaree, now 5 and a half years old, in school in Arizona and secured federal benefits for him.

Then CYFD closed the case on Varela-Casaus. But they didn’t tell Sotelo.

Steve Casaus returned to his wife’s home in December 2010 after serving two years of a sentence on a drug crime, and she gave birth to a third child, E.V., just over a year later.

By then, there was a new social worker on the case, Bennie Placencio, another defendant. He investigated allegations of abuse, because Varela-Casaus had admitted using cocaine while she was pregnant with E.V., but he found them unsubstantiated and allowed the hospital to send the infant home on oxygen.

Varela-Casaus again demanded the return of Omaree and N.V., who were still with Sotelo, from CYFD.

Department employees assisted Varela-Casaus in getting the children back although she was unfit to parent them, the lawsuit says, by having Placencio contact Sotelo and threaten her with a kidnapping charge – though he was not in law enforcement – if she did not return the children to New Mexico within 72 hours.

Fearful of prosecution, Sotelo complied, the lawsuit says. The children were handed over to Varela-Casaus and Casaus, whom they had not seen for a year and a half, at CYFD offices in Albuquerque in March 2011.

No homework

Nothing had changed with regard to the parents when the handoff occurred. There is no record of any investigation or assessment being performed about the parents’ living situation, or analysis of why the children should suddenly be returned and “forcibly placed,” the lawsuit says.

But one significant difference, it notes, was that Varela-Casaus was now living with “her previously absent, ex-convict husband and a new infant son who had tested positive for cocaine at birth.”

During intake interviews after the placement, Varela-Casaus told a CYFD official that she was married, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD, had trouble getting out of bed to care for her children and couldn’t stabilize her moods without medication.

She had been referred for therapy at least twice before, and had not complied, the lawsuit says, but CYFD wasn’t monitoring the lack of compliance.

Just two months before Omaree died in 2013, Varela-Casaus told the agency in another interview that she was not married, had twice been admitted to psychiatric facilities, had suffered a traumatic brain injury from an assault in 1997, and had difficulty with anger and impulse control.

Meanwhile, Omaree and N.V. were experiencing violence at home.

According to the lawsuit, in October 2012, CYFD substantiated allegations that Omaree was being physically abused, and the Child Abuse Response Team at the University of New Mexico Hospital confirmed the child’s statement of being hit with a belt by his mother.

A physician wrote that it was her impression “that Omaree continues to be at risk for abuse without preventive services in place in his home environment.”

CYFD apparently agreed, but ranked the risk as “moderate” and said Varela-Casaus should keep on working with the support services already in place, the complaint says.

911 call

In June 2013, Albuquerque police responded to a 911 call at Omaree’s home, including several minutes of profanity and verbal abuse directed at Omaree by a man and a woman because he had spilled food.

Officers were dispatched to the home but did not intervene or make any arrests.

The incident led to one officer being fired.

Two days after Christmas that year, he was found dead at home of blunt force trauma, with bleeding into the stomach from injuries that had gone on for months.

Steve Casaus had barely lived with the three children when Omaree and N.V. were placed with him and Varela-Casaus, the lawsuit says.

Had the social workers followed the Children’s Code, Omaree and N.V. would have had mandatory safeguards, among them the appointment of an attorney to represent their rights in proceedings, the appointment of a guardian ad litem charged with their representation, a treatment plan to make sure their physical, medical, psychological and educational needs were met and written notice of factual grounds supporting any change in placement.

Because of CYFD’s conduct, Omaree and N.V. “suffered horrifying physical abuse, traumatic emotional abuse, severe mental anguish, and ultimately Omaree lost his life as a direct result of the deprivation of their rights,” the lawsuit says.