- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - An Albuquerque mother was sentenced Friday to 40 years in prison in one of New Mexico’s most high-profile child abuse deaths - a case that sparked a number of reforms and an overhaul of the state agency that handles child abuse.

Before the sentencing, Synthia Varela-Casaus, 40, sobbed and listened to family members denounce her actions that led to the 2013 kicking death of her 9-year-old son, Omaree.

Last month, the mother of four pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and other charges under a plea deal.

Asked in court Friday if she murdered her son, Varela-Casaus cried and said, “yes.”

An autopsy found Omaree died from severe internal bleeding caused by blunt-force trauma. The case drew national attention since Omaree tried unsuccessfully to get help from authorities because of previous abuse. Both police and state child services received prior reports of abuse at Omaree’s home, including from the boy himself.

The case prompted changes in the way the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department investigates child-abuse claims, and has led to a number of proposed laws aimed at combating child abuse in the nation’s poorest state.

According to court documents, Varela-Casaus placed the unconscious child in a bathtub with ice on his head and waited half an hour before calling 911. By the time police and paramedics arrived, Omaree was cold and unresponsive.

Court records also showed Varela-Casaus initially told police her son fell from a toy spring horse.

She later admitted to police officers that she “kicked Omaree into a dresser, causing him to hit his head on the floor,” according to a report by the youth and families agency.

Omaree’s stepfather, Stephen Casaus, was sentenced in November after a jury found him guilty on charges that included tampering with evidence and acting with reckless disregard for not calling 911 sooner.

In an emotional letter, Varela-Casaus’ sister Sylvia Marquez asked State District Judge Brett Lovelace to hold Varela-Casaus accountable. She has been given custody of two of her sister’s younger children and said they both keep asking about their late brother.

“It has taken a lot of hugs and telling them they are safe,” Marquez said. “How could my sister do this? Why did she do this?”

Her father, Bill Varela, and stepmom, Sandra, told the judge in a letter read by a prosecutor that Varela-Casaus began getting into trouble in high school and was convicted of prostitution and drug charges at age 17. The couple said their daughter continued with various legal problems and failed to keep in touch despite many attempts to get her off drugs.

Varela-Casaus, who broke down a number of times in the courtroom, said her son’s death wasn’t supposed to happen.

“I love my kids, and I thank my sister for taking care of them,” she said.

Lovelace said the plea deal kept other family members, especially Omaree’s siblings, from testifying.

“This is in this best interest of justice,” Lovelace said.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/russell-contreras .

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