Click to enlarge
Thursday, January 27, 2011
By Vic Vela
Journal Staff Writer
SANTA FE — Leland Valdez's father noticed in August, a month before his son's third birthday, that the toddler's body was covered in bruises and asked him how he got hurt.
He told his dad, "My (mommy) hit me," according to court documents.
Andrew Valdez reported the alleged abuse of his son to the Children, Youth and Families Department, which did not substantiate findings of abuse.
Today, the 3-year-old Pojoaque boy is dead, his mother and her boyfriend face abuse charges, and two CYFD employees are on administrative leave.
Leland died Wednesday morning in an Albuquerque hospital from what police believed was abuse at the hands of his mother, Tabetha Van Holtz, 22, and her boyfriend, Steven Gallegos, 20.
Doctors told police he had severe head and body injuries, as well as old injuries that were in different stages of healing.
It's a tragic end to years of court wrangling between Van Holtz and Valdez over custody and support of Leland. Valdez had been awarded temporary custody of his son after reporting the alleged abuse. Then, a judge decided in September that Valdez's grandparents should have custody of him. Van Holtz regained custody of Leland in December, after Valdez missed a court hearing.
She and Gallegos picked up Leland on Christmas Eve.
Two CYFD employees have been placed on administrative leave while officials determine whether they properly investigated the abuse allegations made by Valdez last August.
"I tried telling them that he was living in an unsafe environment," said Andrew Valdez said in an interview with the Journal. Valdez did not have custody of his son.
"Nobody listened to us. Now he's gone," he said. "It feels like someone cut my heart out."
In August, Andrew Valdez complained to CYFD and the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office that his son was being abused by Van Holtz. At the time, the two were fighting in court over custody and child support. And CYFD did not substantiate findings of abuse.
Now, CYFD spokeswoman Romaine Serna says the department has "serious concerns about the decisions that were made regarding this child."
Serna said that CYFD is investigating "the rationale behind (the employees') decisions" on abuse allegations from last summer.
"We want to examine everything," Serna said. "We have to look back and examine all decisions that were made."
Santa Fe County Undersheriff Ron Madrid said detectives investigated Andrew Valdez's claims of abuse last year, but that "at the time, there was not enough probable cause for any charges to be filed."
The undersheriff said the 2009 allegations will be investigated again. For now, Van Holtz and Gallegos each face one felony count of child abuse, a crime that also covers abuse resulting in great bodily harm or death, according to Madrid.
As for the case proceeds, the autopsy "is very important," Madrid said. The undersheriff said the autopsy is scheduled for today.
Valdez, the 3-year-old's biological father, said he's trying to remember the best of Leland, though it's hard not to picture his son's bruised face trying to breath through a ventilator in a hospital room the past couple of days.
"I loved taking him to the park, playing baseball and basketball," he said. "He'd play with toy guns and pretend to be a cowboy.
"I just have no idea why this happened," he said. "I don't know why they took their anger out on my son. My head's spinning. I don't know what to think. I can't believe she did that to her own son."
Leland died at 8:53 a.m. Wednesday at University of New Mexico Hospital, according to Santa Fe County Undersheriff Ron Madrid. He was airlifted to Albuquerque from Santa Fe's Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center on Monday for treatment of severe head and body injuries. Doctors in Santa Fe said that, when the boy arrived, he was "unresponsive and vomiting."
The staff at the Santa Fe hospital contacted the sheriff's office. Both Van Holtz and Gallegos, who, along with a friend, drove the boy to the hospital, said that Leland fell off a chair in the kitchen and began "having seizures and convulsions," according to a Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office statement of probable cause for their arrests.
But a doctor told authorities that the injuries were not consistent with that story and also said that the boy's body was covered in old injuries that "were in different stages of the healing process," according to the report.
Gallegos told sheriff's investigators that he had anger management problems and was taking medication for it. He said that he did not take his medication the day of his arrest, but that he only takes his anger out on adults, "but never kids or animals," the report reads.
Andrew Valdez had long suspected that his former wife was abusing his son.
According to court documents:
The two shared custody in September when he submitted court filings seeking a temporary order of protection against Van Holtz. Included in the filing was a letter that he wrote in which he detailed having found injuries to his son's "back, neck, legs, chest and arms."
When the boy said that his mother had "hit me," Valdez took photos of the injuries and called CYFD and the sheriff's office.
In his letter, Valdez wrote that on Sept. 7, Van Holtz went to his other daughter's school and made a threat that "she is going to take the kids and there is nothing we are gonna do about it."
"I am in fear for my (kids' well-being) when she is around," Valdez wrote in the letter.
District Judge Mary Marlowe ordered Van Holtz to stay away from the children and ordered temporary physical custody to Andrew Valdez. But later that month, the matter was dismissed after both parties agreed to come to a resolution.
Predating that court exchange, the former spouses had been locked in a court dispute involving custody and child support. In September 2008, Van Holtz had physical custody of both children when she filed a petition for child support. Later that year, after mediation, the former couple agreed on a parenting plan including joint custody.
But the friction got to the point that a judge in September 2010 ordered the children to live with Valdez's grandparents.
The next month, Valdez failed to show up for a hearing. At the same time, Valdez was behind in child support payments and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. Valdez told the Journal that he stopped making payments because he lost his job.
After that, Van Holtz's attorney, Margaret Kegel, filed a motion seeking custody, claiming that Valdez "made false allegations of abuse" against her client and that "the investigation by CYFD is now closed."
An emergency hearing was scheduled for Dec. 16, one that Valdez didn't show up for. State District Judge T. Glenn Ellington issued another bench warrant for Valdez's arrest and granted "sole and legal custody" to Van Holtz.
Valdez said he "didn't have a clue" that a hearing had been set. About eight days later, on Christmas Eve, Van Holtz showed up at Valdez's grandparents house with the judge's order and took the children.
Valdez said he plans on "taking care" of his outstanding bench warrant on Monday.