CYFD staffing questions remain

Posted at: 01/06/2014 6:11 PM
By: Stuart Dyson, KOB Eyewitness News 4

The case of a nine-year-old boy kicked to death by his own mother raises questions about the state's Children Youth and Families Department. Is it under-staffed? And does it get enough money to protect New Mexico's most endangered kids?

State lawmakers say social workers for CYFD have heavier caseloads than the national average, and lower pay. That could be changing fast with this year's 30-day session of the legislature just two weeks away. Omaree Varela's violent death in Albuquerque just ten days ago dramatizes the situation. Few people feel the calling to work on cases like this. Too many get burned out too fast.

Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, wonders why CYFD returned $6 million of its funding in the last budget cycle.

"We know right now that the vacancy rate at CYFD is way too high," Egolf said. "It's over 15 percent and the legislature has approved enough money for there to be an additional 160 people, but those positions remain vacant."

Gov. Susana Martinez said 300 social workers have been hired in her first term, but the turnover has been vicious. She wants to do something to turn it around.

"It's a tough job," Martinez said. "We want to be able to compensate them so they don't go to other social worker type jobs that aren't as challenging. Having worked with CYFD personally I know how difficult it is."

Omaree Varela was not in CYFD custody, and his family never had an open, active CYFD file. Many close to the case have wondered why not. The boy's mother, Synthia Varela Casaus, had a long record of arrests and convictions. She is now charged with child abuse resulting in death.