January 30, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The tragic case of Omaree Varela is still in the news here (KRQE, 1/28/14). Omaree was the nine-year-old New Mexico boy who was kicked to death by his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, back in December. She remains in jail awaiting trial on murder charges to which she’s pleaded not guilty. As I reported here, the case has become something of a political football in the upcoming race for governor of the state.
Predictably, the child welfare agency for New Mexico, the Children, Youth and Families Department is at the center of the controversy. And predictably, it’s got too few caseworkers and a too-high turnover of them. There’s a revolving door with new, inexperienced, under-trained, underpaid hirees coming in, and burned out experienced ones exiting to less stressful, better paying jobs.
What those new hires find are caseloads no one could adequately handle with, in some cases, the life of a child hanging on the decision of the caseworker. And in most cases, they encounter parents who are afraid of them and don’t much like them. For that, caseworkers are paid considerably less than they can get elsewhere. My guess is that one of the first things most of those new caseworkers do on hiring on with CYFD is to log online and start looking for a new job.
Governor Susana Martinez thinks so too.
“It’s a tough job,” said Gov. Susana Martinez. “We don’t want to have that revolving door of investing in a lot of training and then a year and a half later they’ve gone to another agency.“
That’s true, as we’ve seen in many other states. So what’s New Mexico’s solution?
There are solutions being proposed. Martinez wants to hike pay for social workers this year.
Now Sen. Padilla has introduced a bill with another approach. He wants to give would-be case workers a big incentive.
“We will pay for two years of your bachelor’s degree, the last two years of your bachelor’s degree, but you’ve got to work for CYFD for 24 months,” Padilla said, “We’ll pay for the last year of your master’s degree in social work, but you’ve got to work for CYFD for 12 months.”
Under the bill, if case workers go back on that deal, they’d owe the state what it paid for their education plus a hefty interest payment. Padilla’s proposal requires $2 million to be set aside to pay those tuition costs.
Padilla got nearly half of the Senate to co-sponsor the legislation, including several Republican lawmakers.
That’s right. To address a problem in which caseworkers come to work “and then a year and a half later they’ve gone to another agency,” the state is going to pay people’s college tuition and fees so they can get a Masters in Social Work, come to the agency and be gone in a year. Really.
Overlooked is the fact that last year the Department didn’t spend the money it had.
A legislative audit found 15 percent of those jobs most vital to protecting kids weren’t filled last year. Millions of budgeted dollars went unspent.
Some might argue that the agency should spend the money it has before asking for more. And that surely should happen before it spends vastly greater sums to attract graduates who would only make the revolving door spin faster.
New Mexico, like so many other states has a problem with its child protective agency. But it won’t solve those problems until caseworkers get paid enough to make it worth their while to do one of the most stressful and thankless jobs anywhere.
Into the bargain, officeholders like Martinez and Padilla might take a look at the fact that Omaree Varela didn’t die because there weren’t enough caseworkers to see to his needs. On the contrary, his mother had been abusive to him more than once before his death and CYFD knew it. Omaree had a caseworker and he told her about being beaten with belts and socked in the head with a telephone.
The real story, and probably the real scandal, about Omaree Varela isn’t overworked employees of CYFD. It’s about a caseworker who was on the job and on the case but who seems to have intentionally manipulated a situation to ensure that Varela-Casaus got her boy back. She did and he was dead in a little over a year – dead by her hands.
CYFD caseworker Elizabeth du Passage came to Omaree’s school when his teacher reported that Omaree had told her his mother had hit him with a belt and a phone. He had the bruises on his head and legs to prove it. But, when the police officer arrived to take Omaree’s statement, the caseworker had allowed his mother access to him. The officer was stunned that du Passage had allowed that to happen. Unsurprisingly, Omaree changed his story to the police saying he’d fallen. That let Varela-Casaus off the hook to continue abusing her son.
At this far remove, that looks suspiciously like a caseworker who was all too involved in a case of abuse. It looks like she intervened to keep a little boy in the hands of a mother who was known to be physically abusive of him.
That’s not a matter of insufficient resources, low pay or inexperienced caseworkers. It’s a matter of intentional wrongdoing that got a child killed.
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