Note: This story is part of a package of news articles about the current session of the New Mexico Legislature that the Quay County Sun has obtained from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper.
By Patrick Malone
The New Mexican
Faced with hard questions about the death of a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy whose past abuse was known to her department, the Cabinet secretary in charge of protecting children implored lawmakers to fill vacant positions at her agency in order to keep vulnerable kids safer.
Still, Yolanda Berumen-Deines, secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department under Gov. Susana Martinez, couldn’t assure a legislative panel Tuesday that tragedies such as the death last month of Omaree Varela will never happen again.
“As long as we’re dealing with human behavior, and human behavior being as unpredictable as it is, I believe that there’s always the possibility … that we could experience this once more,” Berumen-Deines said. “But it won’t be because we haven’t made the effort to improve our services, to reduce the likelihood in every way we possibly can.”
Omaree had been placed in foster care, but on the authority of the Children, Youth and Families Department, he was returned to his mother in 2011. She now is charged with child abuse resulting in death for allegedly kicking him to death.
That case and others evoked passionate — bordering on angry — questions from some members of the Senate Finance Committee during a budget hearing for the department Berumen-Deines oversees.
“What are we going to do so that doesn’t happen again, instead of just twiddling our thumbs?” asked Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup.
Berumen-Deines said she favors changes in the guidelines that govern her department that would allow it to stay involved with families longer, in order to make sure they are following through with recommended services. Currently, she said, unless a child is removed from the home, the department has no authority to make certain that families are getting the treatment that’s prescribed.
“In some cases, clients are very, very attuned to how to play the game,” Berumen-Deines said. “They make their appearances for two or three months, and then they drop off the plate until the next referral is made.”
Budgets for fiscal year 2015 proposed by both the governor and the Legislative Finance Committee would reduce the number of vacant positions in protective services for children, although the governor’s plan would fund more investigators.
Investigative caseworkers who review abuse and neglect complaints handle an average of 12 to 15 cases a month, and caseworkers who deal with placement handle approximately 20 cases per month, according to Jared Rounsville, division director of protective services for the Children, Youth and Families Department.
The department has set a target of 12 to 15 cases per month for placement caseworkers, and about 10 cases per month for investigators. Filling open positions and retaining the people who are hired will be keys to reaching those goals, Rounsville said.
“[The caseload] is higher than we would like it to be,” he said. “We’ve seen it higher.”
The number of open cases peaked in 2006 at about 2,600, and hit its contemporary low about two years ago at 1,700, according to Rounsville. Currently, between 1,950 and 1,975 cases are open.
Berumen-Deines said the department is conducting a review of Omaree’s case, and while she would not reveal many details to the committee, she defended her department’s actions.
“Things were done the way they needed to be done,” she said. “And ultimately, we have someone that was able to fall in the gaps. We responded appropriately.”
Berumen-Deines acknowledged “a couple of situations” in which abuse or neglect of the boy was substantiated, triggering a recommended treatment strategy from the Children, Youth and Families Department.
“We have managed to reduce the number of situations where children are killed when they’ve already been brought to our attention,” she said, “but I can’t guarantee that that’s not going to happen again.”
Contact Patrick Malone at 968-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.