Story by Rick Nathanson/Albuquerque Journal
An intimate gathering of about 35 people, many of them part of Omaree Varela’s caretaker family, held a church memorial service for him Tuesday, even as relatives of Synthia Varela-Casaus, the biological mother who now stands accused of killing her 9-year-old son, held a separate and private visitation elsewhere.
Members of the caretaker family said the other family told them they would not be welcome to attend.
Meanwhile, Henry Varela (no relation), spokesman for the state Children, Youth and Family Department on Tuesday said that CYFD did not have the authority to “order” the caretaker family to return the child and his younger sister to a CYFD office so they could be turned over to their biological mother.
Even if that assertion is technically correct, Essie Sotelo and her daughter, Shana Smith said, they are offended at CYFD’s haggling over word definitions.
Sotelo and Smith were caring for the two children in Phoenix, where they said they had moved with the knowledge and permission of Varela-Casaus, the biological mother, who was friends with Sotelo and who had asked her to care for the children. Sotelo says in March 2011 a man who identified himself as a CYFD case worker called the Phoenix home and told them the children were to be turned over to the mother at the CYFD office on San Mateo in Albuquerque.
“Sure sounded like an order to me,” Sotelo said Tuesday. “I told him that she (Varela-Casaus) wasn’t ready to take care of those kids.”
Her granddaughter, LaTasha Smith, said she also received a call to her Albuquerque home from “a CYFD case worker who told me if my grandmother did not return the kids they would get her for out-of-state kidnapping.”
CYFD’s Varela said he couldn’t talk specifically about the Omaree Varela case, but did say that the child had never been removed from his mother and placed in the custody of the state. In those circumstances, “a parent has every right to their children,” he explained.
“Simply having a power of attorney does not give somebody custody of children who are not theirs. A power of attorney can be revoked by the legal parent or guardian at any time. If a so-called caretaker were to call CYFD and ask, ‘can I keep these children even though their mother wants them back?’ any CYFD caseworker would tell them the law. But no caseworker would be in a position to ‘direct’ somebody on custody arrangements, unless the child is in state custody, as ordered by a district court judge.”
Mourner Beverly Edwards did not know the dead child but says “I love kids and this just breaks my heart.” A
LaTasha Smith and her aunt, Vannessia Ochoa, subsequently traveled from Albuquerque to Phoenix to retrieve the children and brought them to the CYFD office, where Varela-Casaus departed with them through a side door. “We didn’t even get to say goodbye to them,” LaTasha Smith said.
Omaree Varela, who had been a fourth-grader at Hodgin Elementary School, died on Dec. 27 after his mother kicked him repeatedly. Medical staff who examined him at a local hospital said his body had signs of past as well as current injuries, including cigarette burns and a bite mark.
Varela-Casaus has been charged with child abuse resulting in death and is being held on a $100,000 cash-only bond. She has served time at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants for drug related convictions. Corrections Department files have her listed as Cynthia Varela rather than Synthia.
CYFD investigated claims of abuse concerning the child on at least two other occasions. A year ago the agency was called to his school after the boy told school officials he had been abused. In 2009, CYFD recommended that the children should remain in Sotelo’s care pending an investigation of the mother and the younger child’s biological father. CYFD did not have an open and active case file on the child at the time of Omaree’s death.
“This family has got to get some closure in their lives – for this entire community there has to be a point of healing,” said Pastor Darnell Smith, who led the service for Omaree Varela at the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church on south Edith.
“This family is suffering at the hands of a broken system,” he said in reference to CYFD. “Your tears are our tears; it’s not just your issue, it’s our issue.”