Agency troubled by shortages

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The Associated Press

SANTA FE — A state agency under fire for its handling of an abuse claim made by a child allegedly killed by his mother has a history of staff shortages.

A recent budget report released by the Legislative Finance Committee shows the vacancy rate for the Children, Youth and Families Department’s Protective Services Division was at 15 percent earlier this month.

That rate has remained relatively unchanged in recent years despite the hiring of over 300 social workers in just three years.

Gov. Susana Martinez told reporters earlier this week that the agency has had a “revolving door” due largely to employee burnout and the difficult nature of the job. She says she has been trying to turn that around.

“It’s a tough job,” Martinez said. “We want to be able to compensate them so they don’t go to other social worker type jobs that aren’t as challenging. Having worked with CYFD personally I know how difficult it is.”

The Protective Services Division investigates child abuse allegations, among other duties. At the beginning of the month, its vacancy rate included 29 unfilled caseworker positions.

Overall, CYFD’s vacancy rate is below that of other large state agencies but a 2011 Legislative Finance Committee audit said the combination of turnover, management inefficiencies and duplicative system had resulted in dangerously high caseloads.

Concerns over the agency’s staffing levels were reignited last month with the death of a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy who police said was kicked repeatedly by his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus. She is facing charges of child abuse resulting in death.

In the case of Omaree Varela, the boy had disclosed physical abuse to school authorities about a year ago. The report was investigated by CYFD, but agency officials have said they did not have any active cases involving the family at the time of the boy’s death.

Martinez has insisted that Varela’s death was not due to CYFD negligence.

“A social worker could never have done anything to prevent it,” the governor said.

State Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, told the Albuquerque Journal more legal authority might need to be given to the agency to reopen closed cases.

“It seems where the cases fall through the cracks is in the follow-up,” Rodriquez said.