SANTA FE (KRQE) – With the Roswell shooting, education reform and economic development taking up most of the attention at the Roundhouse, it was easy to miss another big topic in Gov. Susana Martinez’s State of the State address.
The governor is making a big pitch to fix up the state’s child abuse laws, backing 15 different proposed ideas related to the issue.
A lot of those would hopefully fix what the governor calls dangerous loopholes. One of those proposals is to make it clear that anyone who sees or suspects child abuse is required to report it, something the Court of Appeals ruled was unclear in state law.
“We’re going to make it crystal clear,” Martinez said.
Another proposal is to expand which child abuse resulting in death cases qualify for life in prison. Currently that penalty can only be applied if the victim is younger than 12. The proposed expansion would have that penalty apply if the victim is younger than 18.
But what about the case of Omaree Varela, the 9-year-old investigators say died after his mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, abused him? Martinez says increasing CYFD’s authority could have helped prevent that death. According to the governor, Varela-Casaus was referred to counseling by CYFD, but she didn’t follow through.
“CYFD doesn’t have the power to come back and say, ‘you didn’t do what we asked you to do,’ ” Martinez said.
That’s something she wants to change.
But Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, says the bigger picture problems aren’t these loopholes.
“You can close all the loopholes you want, you can add any number of new crimes to the list, but if you don’t have case workers, investigators and the attorneys for the department, it’s not going to make a lick of difference,” Egolf said.
Egolf says the big problem is with understaffing at CYFD, something he blames squarely on the Martinez administration’s management of the department.
Last budget year, CYFD returned approximately $6 million to the general fund because of unfilled positions.
“If there’s no one there to do an investigation, it’s the children who suffer, and in some cases, it’s the children who lose their lives,” Egolf said.
Martinez says she’s well aware of the staffing issues and high turnover at CYFD and is asking lawmakers to budget money to boost case worker salaries to better retain employees.