LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Reports of abuse of a 10-year-old Lancaster boy who died last week ended in 2016, leading county officials today to question the failings not only of the child welfare system, but society as a whole.
The Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Kathryn Barger calling for a comprehensive review of why Anthony Avalos wasn't removed from his family home, despite a dozen reports to the Department of Children and Family Services between 2013-16.``You had teachers, you had family members, you had law enforcement come in contact. And yet, Anthony's at the morgue; we're awaiting autopsy results,'' Barger said.
``One has to wonder what it's going to take to get the attention of not only the social workers, but the public in general, because I'm told that neighbors also were aware of what was taking place.''Barger and other county officials repeatedly said that they would wait for all the facts to come in before drawing conclusions about exactly what happened to the boy.However, Barger called it a ``senseless murder,'' explaining that ``we don't have a conclusion, but there's no other explanation.''``When I look at the preliminary findings ... it reminds me of Gabriel Fernandez,'' Barger said of the 8-year-old Palmdale boy beaten to death in 2013 by his mother's boyfriend, despite multiple calls to DCFS over a period of years. The boyfriend has been sentenced to death for the crime and Gabriel's mother was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Four DCFS officials are awaiting trial on criminal charges stemming from Gabriel's death. Another potential parallel is a concern that homophobia may have contributed to both boys' abuse. The Los Angeles Times reported that Anthony had come out as gay in recent weeks, according to Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Anthony's aunt, Maria Barron, told The Times it would have taken great courage for Anthony to have announced he was gay in the home.
Asked for confirmation in an interview with City News Service this afternoon, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said he was told that Anthony said ``he liked boys and girls'' and that the context of the boy's comment was not entirely clear.
DCFS has filed disclosure documents required by the state indicating his death was likely due to abuse or neglect, though much of the details remain confidential. No arrests have been made thus far.Callers alleged that Anthony or his siblings were denied food and water, sexually abused, beaten and bruised, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, forced to fight each other, and forced to eat from the trash, sources told The Times.The callers made allegations against several family members, including Anthony's mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, according to the sources cited by the newspaper.
The sexual abuse claim was made against another family member who Barron and Leiva allegedly continued to use for child care even after being made aware of the accusation, the sources said. The aunt said she began alerting DCFS in 2015, when she noticed bruises and other injuries that the children told her were caused by Leiva. She said the children also reported Leiva locking them in small spaces where they had to urinate and defecate on the floor. Leiva, who someone reported as an alleged member of a notorious Salvadoran street gang, was convicted in 2010 of domestic abuse, The Times reported. Cagle said his number one concern after hearing about Anthony was the safety of the seven other children in the home, who have all been placed elsewhere and are receiving critical support services, like therapy, to cope with their situation. The DCFS director told CNS that he could not disclose whether they were all siblings.``The structure and constellation of the family is pretty complex,'' Cagle said.
The DCFS director and Barger both highlighted the possibility that the Antelope Valley poses particular challenges for child welfare workers, given its sprawling geography.
Hundreds more social workers have been hired since Gabriel Fernandez' death to reduce caseloads, and staffing levels are high in Lancaster and Palmdale, Cagle said, but the county review will revisit those ratios and the level of supervision, as well as the tenure of local staff.``If I had my best-of-all-possible-worlds organization, I would want nobody with less than five years' experience doing this frontline work. We know that that's not a reality anywhere,'' Cagle said. The department will look at whether they should bring more experienced personnel into the Antelope Valley and Barger suggested that longer tenured social workers might be paired with newer personnel in the field.
She also floated the idea of allowing teachers, a critical link in reporting abuse, to be given the right to know when a child abuse case has been opened on one of their students, so that they could better serve as a monitor of the child's welfare.In Anthony's case, he was briefly placed in the care of an aunt and uncle, according to The Times' sources. One of his aunts told the newspaper that relatives protested when Anthony was returned home.
However, the aim of DCFS, like that of most child welfare systems across the country, is to keep children with their families whenever it is safe to do so, because that's generally in their best interests.``You don't necessarily make children safer by bringing more children into the system,'' said Cagle, who spent the first 10 months of his own life in an orphanage after being given up for adoption by his birth mother. But whenever safety is at stake, the system should act to find a safe environment, he said.
Roughly 18,000 children in Los Angeles County have been removed from their family homes to protect them from abuse and neglect. The scale of the problem is daunting, with more than 170,000 reports about abuse and neglect coming into DCFS in 2017. As he pulled data as part of the investigation of Anthony's death, Cagle found that over the last five years, around 29,000 children have been the subject of five to nine reports.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies responded to a 911 call from Anthony's mother about 12:15 p.m. last Wednesday and found the boy unresponsive inside his family's apartment. Authorities said they were told the youngster had suffered injuries from a fall. He died at a hospital Thursday morning, and investigators classified the death as ``suspicious.''