Andy Armando Garcia is, in judicial parlance, a "repeat offender," having been booked for credit card theft, drugs and skipping warrants.

He is also a daddy. Which turns out to be a bigger problem.

On the afternoon of July 23, 2007, Garcia, then 25, stopped by the home of his son's mother, Gloria Garcia. Their child was 7 months old and had been born the previous Christmas Day with drugs in his system, police say.
The parents had apparently separated. The father was not supposed to see the son. When he did, the trouble started.

When two home health care workers passing by in a car saw Garcia with his son in the street, they called police. "Their description was he was throwing this kid like 10 to 12 feet in the air, tumbling him head over butt," Santa Fe Police Officer Michele Williams says. "He never actually dropped him. He caught him by the arm, caught him by the leg and threw him up again. One time he threw him up with both hands around the skull, like a basketball."

Sergeant Russell Gunn, who also worked the case, says the baby's distress was obvious. "The kid had this look on his face like he'd just gotten off of a high-speed roller coaster," Gunn says.

Other injuries were discovered at the hospital. Authorities charged both parents for child abuse.

And it might have ended there, but what happened next shows just how difficult the work of child welfare is for police, caseworkers and foster parents.

When Garcia got caught tossing his child around, the child was legally under state custody. It was a moment of transition: Caseworkers with the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department had just reunited son and mother, who was successfully completing treatment programs the state required after her son's birth.

Recently, the child's new adoptive parents sued the state, claiming CYFD "improperly placed [the child] in a dangerous living environment." Dennis Murphy, a former state assistant attorney general, took on the case for the adoptive parents.

"CYFD shouldn't have placed the kid with the mother," Murphy says. He spoke with SFR on the condition that the child and his new family not be named.

Last week, the parents asked a First Judicial District Court judge to approve a settlement with CYFD, which Murphy says would cover the child's medical bills and set aside some funds for his future use. The settlement isn't finalized, state General Services Department spokesman Alex Cuellar says—and anyway, he says, rules forbid him from discussing a case until 180 days after a settlement.

CYFD's possible mistake only came to light because the adoptive parents happen to be the same foster family who took care of the child when he was first born, and again seven months later when he was abused.

"I can understand why they'd be upset" to see the child in trouble again, Williams says.

The CYFD investigator on the case, Stephanie Vasquez, did not return a message. But if caseworkers erred in returning the child to Gloria Garcia, it was perhaps understandable. "They certainly didn't know that Andy was in the picture. Whether the mom did, that's a whole 'nother thing," Williams, who worked with other agencies on the case, says. "She led CYFD to believe, and certainly led me to believe, that she and Andy were not together."

State caseworkers investigate an average of 10 child abuse or neglect cases each week in Santa Fe County. CYFD's quarterly reports say cases involving incarcerated parents are steadily increasing. That increase has not been matched by social services budgets.

"I can't think of any harder job in the world than being a social worker. They don't have enough time. They have too many cases. The turnover is about 15 months for people working on the front lines," Janice Quinn, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, a nonprofit whose volunteers track abuse cases, says. "Do they occasionally make a mistake? Sure. They're human."

At least this child wound up in a better situation. That's not true for the father.

In May 2008, Andy Garcia failed to appear in court to answer the abuse charges. A judge put a warrant out for his arrest, which he managed to avoid until February. Last week, Garcia was sentenced to nine years in the state prison in Los Lunas for cocaine possession and child abuse.

He is forbidden from contacting his son, who will grow up with a new family and a new name.