COMMENTARY: In 2002, we lost 5-month-old Baby Brianna Lopez when her parents and uncle raped, sodomized, bit and threw her against the ceiling. She probably never knew what it was like to be loved and protected in her too-short life.
When Brianna died, so many of us were outraged that such an innocent, helpless child could be subjected to such horrific treatment. Her mother, Stephanie Lopez, may be released from prison on parole as early as October of this year.
Fast-forward 14 years. We haven’t made any progress forward. Not one step. Keep reading, please.
Two years ago, Omaree Varela died after his mother kicked him in the stomach. His stepfather, Stephen Casaus, was recently sentenced to 30 years behind bars for his part in Omaree’s death. His mother, Synthia Varela-Causus, is pleading guilty to six charges: second-degree murder; child abuse resulting in great bodily harm or death, recklessly caused; child abuse with no great bodily harm or death, recklessly caused; child abuse recklessly permitted; and child abuse recklessly caused. In addition, she faces an evidence-tampering charge.
Varela-Casaus faces up to 40 years behind bars based on the plea agreement. Once she completes her sentence, she will face five years on probation.
Current law in New Mexico allows someone convicted of intentional abuse resulting in death of a child ages birth-11 to be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. We toughened the law after Baby Brianna died. Today, the maximum penalty for intentional abuse resulting in the death of a child ages 12-17 is 18 years. Negligent abuse resulting in the death of a child of any age carries a maximum sentence of 18 years.
When I heard about the horrific way Omaree died, I admit that I was extremely angry. Why isn’t the message getting through to these parents? What more do we need to do?
On Aug. 24, we lost 9-year-old Victoria Martens when her mother’s boyfriend and the boyfriend’s cousin allegedly injected methamphetamine into her vein, raped, choked, stabbed and dismembered her. Her mother is alleged to have idly sat by as all of this was being done to her daughter.
Where are we failing our state’s children? What are we missing?
Victoria’s mother, Michelle Martens, reportedly told the police she watched for her own “sexual gratification” as both Fabian Gonzales and Jessica Kelley abused Victoria. Gonzales placed all the blame on Kelley. I was warned that the story wasn’t easy to read. Yes, I wanted to cry and puke as I continued to read.
Why did this mother just sit by as her own child was being violated? Does she miss something essential in her psyche that would have made her stand up and push Victoria’s murderers away?
I was a child protective services social worker for the Children, Youth and Families Department from 1994 to mid-2001. I worked on my share of difficult cases — cases that involved child sexual abuse, Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, extreme neglect, ongoing physical abuse, and domestic violence witnessed by very young children. We were cautioned not to become emotionally invested in the children we worked with. It wasn’t easy because the nature of our work meant we formed relationships with them and their families.
If (sometimes when) the children were able to go home, we let them go, feeling like we were releasing our own young into the big, bad world. I’ll admit that wasn’t a comfortable emotion for me.
Victoria’s death approaches, if not surpasses, the horrors experienced by my former clients. One child on my caseload was sexually abused beginning in her infancy. This continued until, as a preschooler, she was placed into foster care with two older siblings. Because of the extent and ongoing nature of the abuse, she suffered severe emotional and psychological damage.
Too many of the cases for which I was responsible involved substance abuse or domestic violence. When a parent is high on their substance of choice, they are unable to supervise and provide safety or structure for their children. They make bad decisions because the drugs are short-circuiting their normal thought processes.
I lived and worked in Española, which was and still is known as the “heroin capital of the U.S.” One family handed on their “family tradition” of drug use and addiction from grandparent to parent to child. While the parents dearly loved their children, they were unable to see just how their own addiction affected them. This meant they were unable to understand just how bad it was for the children to encourage them to shoplift and steal so they could help support their parents’ addictions.
The children all struggled with poor self-esteem and anger issues. I moved away from Española in 1998, so I don’t know what happened with the children in this family. But I am not optimistic.
Children’s lives are not as highly valued as those of adults who may have educations, life experience and gainful employment. Even though state law changed to toughen some penalties after Brianna’s death, too many abusers are still getting away with, literally, murder.
Because the law hadn’t yet changed, Brianna’s parents and uncle weren’t sentenced to life behind bars; therefore, her mother could be getting out of prison within a few months. Synthia Varela struggled for several years with her own drug issues. Albuquerque police say that Victoria Martens’ mother and mother’s boyfriend have drug issues of their own.
Was the Martens family involved with CYFD in any way? Because of confidentiality, it’s not clear. Martens and the father of her 8-year-old son were on the opposite sides of a child-support case that was filed in 2015. The father alleged that Martens mistakenly believed that he had filed a report against her with CYFD.
When some parents are confronted with the reality of involvement with CPS, they realize just how close they are to losing their children. Other parents keep on with their activities, neglecting or abusing their children.
With these parents, when I assessed their readiness to change, I actually felt helpless. Their substance-abuse issues or mental illness was stronger than any program I was able to provide. Even when I teamed up with mental-health or substance-abuse professionals, some parents either wouldn’t or couldn’t learn what they needed to do to make their homes safe for their children.
I am not going to assign any blame to CYFD, precisely because we don’t know whether the agency was involved with Victoria’s family. Besides, the overworked social workers often do more for “their families” than they are required by agency policy to do.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has advocated for the death penalty to be reinstated. I’m not sure that’s the right remedy in this case, even though Victoria’s death was so horrifying.
While death-penalty proponents say that this will deter other abusers, let’s remember that, when someone is in the grip of their drug of choice, or if they are caught up in anger or frustration, they don’t think rationally. Therefore, they aren’t going to say to themselves, “Hey, wait a minute. If I stab/rape/hit/stomp on or give this kid drugs, and they die, I could die. Nah, I’d better not.”
Thought becomes action; action becomes tragedy.
Alvarez is an independent writing and editing consultant living in Las Cruces. She writes articles for clients as well as creating fiction based right here in our city.