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Four Years After Omaree, APD Still Dysfunctional On Child Abuse Referrals

Four Years After Omaree, APD Still Dysfunctional On Child Abuse Referrals

APD has no written policy on how to respond to a CYFD child abuse referral, especially like the one it failed to respond to before 10-year-old Victoria Martens was murdered last August.

Shortly after Omaree Varela’s death in December of 2013, Mayor Richard Berry and Albuquerque Police Department officials pledged that they would reform the way the police department responded to calls of child abuse.

The city spent $50,000 on a study to determine how those calls should be handled. That was after five officers were disciplined, including a sergeant, for mishandling the calls in Omaree’s case. One of the officers was later fired.

Now, nearly four years later, at least part of APD’s response to child abuse, especially referrals from the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, remains dysfunctional.

In fact, APD has no written policy on how to respond to a CYFD referral, especially like the one it failed to respond to before 10-year-old Victoria Martens was murdered last August.

According to an investigation into the Martens case by the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, APD is lost when it comes to knowing how to deal with a CYFD referral. CPOA investigator Paul Skotchdopole laid out APD’s deficiencies on Aug. 1 when he briefed the agency’s Case Review Committee about APD’s failure to investigate the CYFD referral it got in Victoria’s case last summer.

“Nobody [at APD] really looks at the misdemeanor offenses against children,” Skotchdopole said. “And I asked, how do you assign these cases? Because when a CYFD referral comes to APD, what should APD’s response be to it? A former sergeant in the Crimes Against Children Unit told me what the policy was, but it’s an unwritten policy.”

APD has two civilian employees, one part-time and the other full-time, to screen CYFD referrals. But once those employees decide to not send officers out to check on a referral, there’s no one to check their decisions, Skotchdopole said.

“For whatever reason, this civilian, when this referral came in, decided it didn’t meet the criteria for assignment, and so it got pushed off to the side,” Skotchdopole said. “Nobody went out and followed up on it. And that’s troubling to me.”

Skotchdopole continued:

“One of the troubling things about this is that after Omaree Varela, APD spent $50,000 on a consultant to look at all of these things to see what was being missed with regards to referrals, calls to the police department involving children, neglect or abuse, or whatever. And nobody caught the fact, well what do you do with a CYFD referral?

“It should be very simple. Nobody ever caught the fact that there was no policy regarding that and how they’re going to do it.”

Police Oversight Board Chair Joanne Fine said that APD’s response to the CYFD referral in Victoria’s case was “absolutely dysfunctional.”

Skotchdopole said the Police Oversight Board, which is charged by city ordinance with developing policy for APD, needs to look at APD’s policies and procedures in regards to CYFD referrals. He suggested that all referrals should be assigned to uniformed officers through the dispatch system. That way, at least an officer would respond, he said.

And Skotchdopole ripped APD’s assertion that its officers needed probable cause to interview Victoria and her mother after it received the CYFD referral that the mother’s boyfriend had tried to kiss Victoria.

APD also argued that it couldn’t interview the child or her mother because of privacy concerns.

Skotchdopole called that argument “hogwash.” If an officer were to go to go out on such a referral, the officer could title the report “child abuse,” and the report would not be public and subject to public information requests, Skotchdopole said.

And Skotchdopole ripped APD’s communications and public outreach director, Celina Espinoza, for waiting six weeks to tell a news reporter that she and the department had lied when they said in January that APD officers had interviewed Victoria and her mother.

“And in regards to Celina, the irritating thing to me abut that was she waited six weeks,” Skotchdopole said. “She found out the information was wrong on the 27th or 28th of January and she waited until the middle of March, when the reporter called her, before she admitted to the reporter that no one had gone out.

“When you tout the fact that you want your division to be transparent, and integrity is the utmost importance to you and on and on and on, and you’re aware of a fact that your PIO gave bad information, yet you wait six weeks to contact the reporter and do the retraction? You should have corrected the record within days. There is no excuse for waiting six weeks. She works directly for the chief of police.”

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.