Vigilance needed

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By Optic Editorial Board

Anyone in New Mexico who has picked up a newspaper or watched television news in the last four months likely knows the tragic story of Omaree Varela.

Omaree was a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy who was kicked to death, allegedly by his mother, in December. In the days and months following the boy’s death, the media have chronicled instance after instance where Albuquerque police or Children, Youth and Families Department caseworkers received reports that Omaree was being abused, yet they took no action to remove him from the home.

In fact, there was even a 911 recording from June 2013 in which Omaree’s mother and stepfather can be heard berating and verbally abusing the boy.

The officers responding to that 911 call didn’t bother listening to the recording, and they chose to believe Omaree’s mother and stepfather that it was nothing.

Few would argue that the system failed Omaree Varela.

Last week, Gov. Susana Martinez unveiled a dozen policy changes and directives in an effort to reform the way child abuse cases are handled in New Mexico.

According to The Associated Press, Martinez plans to sign several executive orders requiring caseworkers to review police reports and other documents before making any investigative decisions, and she wants to establish child advocacy centers around the state where caseworkers will meet regularly with police to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect. Essentially, she’s trying to force police and caseworkers to share notes.

Among the other reforms Martinez wants to institute are:
• A policy change requiring high-level reviews of families who have been investigated at least twice by CYFD.
• Requiring state law enforcement officers to contact CYFD when they are dispatched to a child welfare call to determine whether there have been previous abuse or neglect allegations involving the family.
• Hiring a special recruiter to work with New Mexico State University and other schools of social work to address staffing problems at CYFD.
• Boosting compensation for caseworkers in an effort to stem turnover and make New Mexico more competitive.

We’re glad that the governor is taking steps to reform the system that let Omaree down. Addressing the understaffing and constant turnover at CYFD will go a long way toward improving the system.

But at the end of the day, it’s going to take vigilance from caseworkers, police officers, teachers and others on the front lines to prevent another tragedy like the one that befell Omaree.