Social Workers Sued Over Child’s Death

     ALBUQUERQUE (CN) – A state agency responsible for safeguarding the well-being of New Mexico’s at-risk children and families failed to protect a 9-year-old who was beaten to death by his mother and stepfather, a lawsuit brought by the child’s estate claims.
     The death of Omaree Martin, found beaten, burned and unresponsive in his home two days after Christmas 2013, shocked and horrified New Mexicans.
     In a complaint filed on Sept. 25, Gabriella Valdez, Martin’s guardian ad litem, claims the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department placed
     placed the victim and his siblings with their frequently arrested mother and stepfather, despite strong evidence that the children were at risk in the home.
     Martin’s mother, Synthia Varela, was in prison for drug trafficking when the child was born, and admitted that she frequently used crack cocaine during her pregnancy.
     Both prior to the child’s birth and afterwards, Varela was a frequent subject of police attention, being arrested on charges ranging from shoplifting to prostitution to drug possession and distribution to failure to appear in court.
     At the time of Martin’s birth, his biological father, Christopher Clewis, was also in jail.
     Despite, this, the complaint says, the state never took Martin into its legal custody, instead placing it with relatives who were later found unable to adequately care for him.
     In November 2004, Varela married Steve Casaus, who also had a criminal record for drug possession, and had also been charged repeatedly with drug trafficking, assault, domestic violence, auto theft and multiple parole violations, the court documents say.
     Throughout his young life, Martin was passed from caregiver to caregiver, and often wound up back with his mother and stepfather. During these times, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and local police were often called to investigate allegations of abuse.
     On one occasion, Martin called 911 in the hope that someone would rescue him.
     A recording of the call, with Omaree pleading for his mother and stepfather to stop threatening him, and his stepfather telling the boy that, “I never hated nobody like you in my life, ever. You know that Omaree. I hate you more than I ever hated anybody in my whole life. And I’ve been on this earth 41 years, and nobody made me feel the way you do Omaree – ever.”
     A lapel cam video of the police response to the the call shows Martin’s mother and stepfather making excuses for the verbal abuse, with Omaree’s mother claiming that “my baby was playing with my phone.”
     The Albuquerque Police Department officers left without making any arrests or removing the children from the home. Six months later, Omaree was dead.
     But the system had been failing Martin all along, the complaint says.
     According to Gabriella Valdez, the state agency investigated allegations of child abuse against Martin’s mother multiple times in 2006, 2008 and 2009, but failed to do anything to protect the child.
     The second time Martin’s mother was investigated in 2009, an agency social worker, defendant Joe Roybal, determined that charges of child neglect against Synthia Varela were unsubstantiated even though another woman, Essie Sotelo, “had been caring for the children since late August because Synthia was using drugs and had not been home,” the complaint says.
     Despite the mounting evidence that Varela was at best an unfit mother, Valdez says, Martin and his sister were returned to their mother and stepfather in March 2011.
     Over the next two years, the complaint says, Martin showed many signs of physical abuse, and yet the agency listed his risk level as “moderate” and never recommended removing him from his mother’s home.
     It was only after Martin’s death that the agency appeared to recognize the danger to the children in Varela’s care, and removed Martin’s younger brother and sister from the home.
     Valdez seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Martin’s sister, on
     claims that agency social workers failed to exercise sound professional judgment, creating and increasing the danger to children, denial of access to the court for the victims of abuse, and violations of the Tort Claims Act.
     She is represented by F. Michael Hart, of Martinez, Hart & Thompson, and Andrew Schultz, of Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb. Both firms are located in Albuquerque.

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