Mother & Boyfriend in Jail, Child Welfare Agency Investigated in Death of Boy, 3

This case has a definite odor (Santa Fe New Mexican, 1/28/11).  Let it simmer a bit and my intuition tells me it’ll start to smell terrible.  In fact, it already does.

But that’s far from the worst of it.  The worst of it is that a three-year-old boy, Leland Valdez of Pojoaque, New Mexico, was apparently beaten to death by his mother Tabetha Van Holtz, her boyfriend Steven Gallegos, or both.  They’re in jail in lieu of $500,000 bond each.

More intriguing is that the Children, Youth and Families Department caseworker and his supervisor have both been placed on administrative leave and the governor of the state, Susana Martinez has intervened in the case.

What we know now about the case is sketchy, but it seems that Van Holtz and Leland’s father, Andrew Valdez were separated and Valdez complained about child abuse to the CYFD.  His complaints were investigated, but no action was taken.  Then in October of last year, Van Holtz requested sole custody of Andrew and was granted it.

Two months later, Van Holtz and Gallegos brought Leland to a local hospital with multiple blunt force trauma injuries.  They said he’d fallen out of a chair, but no one believes them because the bruising on the child looks like it came from beatings given at various times.  Leland died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Meanwhile, it looks like CYFD caseworker Donald Romero may have called for action to be taken against Van Holtz and Gallegos but had his request quashed by his supervisor, Gabriella James.

While Romero is also on leave for the time being, it appears James, who did not return a telephone message Friday seeking comment, is the primary focus of the internal investigation.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s office, Scott Darnell added,

“This individual (James) has been placed on administrative leave and every case in which this individual was involved is being reviewed,” Darnell stated in an e-mail. “The Governor is deeply concerned and has been personally involved in working with the cabinet secretary (Yolanda Berumen-Deines) to get to the bottom of this.”

Every case?  That suggests that there’s far more to this little boy’s death than meets the eye.  So does the fact that the governor of the state is involved.  I’ve seen all too many of these cases in which a state child welfare agency fails to pay attention to clear indications of abuse with disastrous consequences.  But I’ve never seen one in which the governor intervenes.

What the article doesn’t mention though is how a court could shove a father out of boy’s life in favor of a mother against whom there was evidence of abuse.  True, we don’t know what the evidence was when Valdez first complained to CYFD, but how likely is it that there was no abuse then, but extensive, fatal abuse over a significant period of time later?  I’d say not very.

“I knew something bad was going to happen if they let the kids stay with her,” Andrew Valdez, 25, said of Tabetha Van Holtz, the mother of the children. “I was doing everything legally I could do to make sure they were safe, and it’s hard not to sit here today with my son beaten to death and not think that CYFD failed to help my son…”

In a petition for an order of protection from domestic abuse that Andrew Valdez filed Sept. 8 at state District Court in Santa Fe, Valdez wrote he was “in fear for my kids’ well being when she is around,” referring to Van Holtz. He said he discovered “bruises all over (Leland’s) back, neck, legs, chest, arms” on Aug. 8.

“I asked him what happened, and he told me, ‘Mommy hit me in my tummy,’ ” Andrew Valdez said Wednesday. “And Alyssa (Leland’s sister) told me ‘Mommy’s boyfriend’ would hit him, too.”

Amazingly enough, Valdez said that CYFD told him that, when they investigated his original claims, they couldn’t determine whether it was Van Holtz or Gallegos who was injuring Leland, so they could take no action.

To put it mildly, that’s just not true.  If a child welfare agency believes that a home environment is not safe for a child, it can remove the child from the home whether it’s the boyfriend, the mother, the girlfriend or whoever is committing the abuse.

Plus, saying they don’t know who’s abusing the child is a far cry from saying that there’s no evidence of abuse.

It’ll take a while before all the questions are answered in this case.  But what so far no one seems to be asking is “how did a mother keep custody of a child who was being abused in her home?”  Why didn’t Andrew Valdez get to care for his son?

On that note, surely the lowest point in the case came when

Andrew Valdez, now married and living in Jacona with a stepdaughter and the couple’s 1-month-old son, says a CYFD official informed him Tuesday while he was at University Hospital that he could take custody of Leland and Alyssa.

At that point Leland was near death.

Thanks to Josh for the heads-up.

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