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SANTA FE — As a father finalized funeral arrangements for his 3-year-old son this week, New Mexico’s governor is placing the state’s child welfare agency under scrutiny in the investigation of the boy’s death.
Gov. Susana Martinez wants to know what the state could have done to save Leland Valdez, and is placing the state Children, Youth and Families Department under a microscope. Leland died Wednesday in an Albuquerque hospital two days after the couple say he fell off a kitchen chair in their Pojoaque home and hit his head.
Department caseworker Donald Romero and his supervisor, Gabriella James, have been placed on paid leave as the state investigates why Leland was not removed from the home of his mother and her boyfriend.
Doctors and police concluded that bruises and cuts covering most of the toddler’s body were the result of repeated physical abuse over time, according to a court document.
Tabetha Van Holtz, 22, who is pregnant with her third child, and her 20-year-old boyfriend, Steven Gallegos, were arrested and are being held in the Santa Fe County jail in lieu of $500,000 cash bonds. They’re each charged with child abuse resulting in death, which carries a mandatory 18 years in prison if convicted.
“This individual has been placed on administrative leave and every case in which this individual was involved is being reviewed,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said 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.”
Families department spokeswoman Romaine Serna declined to comment Friday. On Wednesday, she said, “This boy was failed somewhere, and we need to find out where.”
Andrew Valdez, Leland’s biological father, was mired in months of custody battles with Van Holtz over Leland and his 4-year-old sister, Alyssa. He filed a complaint with the families department in August after he said he found bruising all over Leland’s body.
“I asked him what happened, and he told me, ‘Mommy hit me in my tummy,’ “ Andrew Valdez told The Santa Fe New Mexican earlier this week. “And Alyssa told me, ‘Mommy’s boyfriend’ would hit him, too.”
The department looked into the allegations but determined there was not enough evidence to remove the child from his mother’s custody.
The 25-year-old father, who has since married and has a 1-month-old son, accompanied Leland’s body from Albuquerque back to an Española funeral home on Friday after an autopsy was completed. He said he hopes the governor’s involvement in the matter will help.
“I can hope that is a good thing, and something good comes from it,” he said.
Public visitation for Leland will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Pojoaque at 6 p.m. Sunday with wakes at 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday, according to DeVargas Funeral Home in Española. Funeral services are set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, with burial to follow at the Nambé Catholic Cemetery.