ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico’s embattled child welfare agency is the target of a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations.

The complaint, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, spells out the details of a custody battle that attorney Colin Hunter says resulted in a young girl being emotionally and physically abused at the hands of strangers.

Hunter said Monday the case is the latest example of incompetence within the state Children, Youth and Families Department, which has come under scrutiny in the weeks since the death of Omaree Varela, a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy who police say was kicked repeatedly by his mother.

In the lawsuit involving the girl, Hunter said a senior investigator with the state agency had called on Belen police to stop the girl’s father, remove the child from his vehicle and return her to her mother despite an earlier court order that had established the father’s custody.

The police stop happened Feb. 6, 2012, the same day a special court commissioner had dismissed a temporary restraining order against the father that stemmed from the mother’s efforts to overturn the court order.

Hunter said the child welfare agency investigator took action despite the court order and knowing that the mother was a transient and did not have the means to care for the girl.

“This is not a case of an overwhelmed system allowing a child to fall through the cracks. This is a case of poorly trained and poorly supervised government agencies flagrantly disobeying a court order and placing a child in danger,” the lawsuit states.

The girl’s grandparents hired a private investigator to find her. She was found with strangers in a mobile home in Espanola and her mother’s whereabouts were unknown, according to the lawsuit.

While in her mother’s custody, the father and grandparents claim the girl was often left unattended, did not go to school and was abused by strangers.

Belen Police Chief Dan Robb said he was unaware of the case.

Children, Youth and Families Department spokesman Henry Varela called the lawsuit frivolous, noting that the child had never been in the agency’s custody.

“Because the state of New Mexico never had legal custody of the child, CYFD never had any legal authority to decide where a child should be placed,” he said, without addressing the allegations against the investigator.

Gov. Susana Martinez has acknowledged the agency has had a “revolving door” largely because of employee burnout and the difficult nature of the job. She has said she’s been trying to turn that around, but critics say caseloads have risen to unmanageable levels and the lack of follow-up is concerning.

In the case of Omaree Varela, critics have said the child welfare agency and Albuquerque police failed the boy by not removing him from his home.

Hunter said his clients are angry that their granddaughter was removed from a safe environment and placed in danger.

“I don’t know the cause or the reason, and it’s not that I don’t think people don’t care over there, but something has to change,” he said, referring to the agency. “These jobs are just too important.”

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