By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — Responding to what she called the tragic death of a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy, Gov. Susana Martinez unveiled more than a dozen policy changes and directives on Wednesday intended to reform the way child abuse cases are investigated in New Mexico.
The moves came in response to criticism that the system did not do enough to protect Omaree Varela, who police said was kicked to death by his mother after previous reports of abuse.
Martinez personally reviewed the case and spent the past three months with other state officials taking a broader look at how child abuse and neglect investigations were being handled.
“Omaree died in a manner that no child should ever experience,” the governor said. “He was betrayed by the one person who should have loved him and protected him the most and that was his mother.”
Martinez intends to sign a number of executive orders requiring caseworkers to review police reports and other documents before making any investigative decisions, and to establish child advocacy centers around the state where caseworkers will meet regularly with authorities to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect.
Part of the governor’s focus will be on Valencia County, which she identified as a high-risk, high-need area concerning child welfare services.
“It makes no sense for an officer and a caseworker to investigate the same incident and never share notes or even speak with one another beyond their initial meeting,” Martinez said.
In the case involving Varela, Albuquerque police and Children, Youth and Families Department officials have been criticized for not removing the boy from his home after receiving reports of abuse.
On Wednesday, Gil Vigil, one of the two Albuquerque police officers under investigation for how they handled an abuse call at the Varela home last June, was fired, said his attorney Sam Bregman.
Vigil did nothing wrong and the firing was unjustified, Bregman said.
The boy’s mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, has pleaded not guilty to more than 20 charges related to the boy’s death.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, stressed that boosting caseworker and legal staff would be a key element in reforming New Mexico’s child welfare system. Still, the governor’s initiatives sound like a reasonable beginning, she said.
“We absolutely must build a system where children who are in danger are immediately removed from the danger and, on the other hand, where children are not unnecessarily removed from their families,” Chasey said.
Martinez said one way to prevent children from falling through the cracks will be a policy change requiring high-level reviews of families who have been investigated at least twice by CYFD.
Department Secretary Yolanda Deines said that will ensure greater scrutiny of homes where there appears to be a pattern concerning conduct.
State law enforcement officers will also be required to contact CYFD when dispatched to child welfare calls to determine whether there have been any prior interactions between the agency and the household. The use of smartphones, tablets and other technology to access such information is also needed, state officials said.
To address staffing problems and overwhelming caseloads, Martinez called for the hiring of a special recruiter to work with New Mexico State University and other schools of social work to identify prospects to fill jobs.
The state is also boosting compensation for caseworkers to stem turnover and make New Mexico more competitive among neighboring states that are also scrambling to hire social workers.