County Says Shortage of Antelope Valley Social Workers Amounts to Crisis

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - As child welfare administrators struggled to explain how a 4-year-old Palmdale boy died in his parents' custody despite efforts to remove him from his home, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors pushed managers today to hire more social workers in the Antelope Valley.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger referenced a state audit, released in May, which found that children are sometimes left in unsafe and abusive situations for months because social workers fail to consistently and quickly complete abuse and neglect investigations.

``The time for study and work group meetings is long past, and swift action is needed,'' Barger said, calling for more social workers to lower employee caseloads.

She also focused on the completion of a web-based system to track the implementation of a host of recommended improvements to the county Department of Children and Family Services. In a preliminary response to state auditors, DCFS promised to roll out that tracking system by September and Barger said she expected the department to deliver.

``I'm beyond grief now, I'm angry,'' Barger told managers.

The parents of Noah Cuatro reported a near drowning in their family pool in the 1200 block of East Avenue S around 4 p.m. July 5, but the boy's injuries later raised suspicions about how he died.

The youngsterwas taken first to Palmdale Regional Medical Center and then to Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where he was pronounced dead July 6.

In a news conference last week announcing an investigation into the boy's death, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Noah lived with his parents and three siblings. Authorities said those siblings have been taken into protective custody.

There were previous reports to DCFS regarding the boy, but the details of those reports were not disclosed.

Supervisor Janice Hahn hinted at some mistakes made, saying social workers had argued for the boy to be removed from his family home but a judge initially denied that request.

``We didn't get him out of that home in time and we should have,'' Hahn said.

Sources told the Los Angeles Times that Noah was removed from his parents' home in 2016 and lived in foster care for two years before they regained custody.

In May, after a report that the boy's father had kicked his wife and children in public, a DCFS social worker requested a court order to remove Noah from the family home, according to those sources. Superior Court Commissioner Steven Ipson granted the request May 15, the newspaper reported, relying on its sources as the court documents are not publicly available.

Why Noah remained in his parents' care for roughly three weeks after that has not been explained.

DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told the board he wanted to make more information public and was seeking leeway from the courts to do so.

``This death happened on my watch,'' Cagle said. ``I fully accept the responsibility for the work that was done.''

Though the Sheriff's Department is still investigating the case, Hahn seemed to have access to some details.

``It's a really horrifying thing to learn more about the short life that Noah had,'' Hahn said. ``If it's true that he was sort of tortured by those who were there as his parents to protect him, then they're the monsters in this situation ... however, it was our job to try to save him.''

Sources who claimed access to DCFS case files told The Times that allegations were made around May that Noah had been sodomized.

DCFS received more than 167,000 allegations of abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2017-18, according to the state audit. Social workers responsible for evaluating those allegations are overburdened, especially in the Antelope Valley, where DCFS employees are also less experienced, Barger said.

The average tenure of a DCFS employee department-wide is 6.1 years, as compared with 4.8 years in Lancaster and 3.9 years in Palmdale, Barger told her colleagues.

Supervisor Hilda Solis backed Barger and said the issue has become a public health crisis.

``We've got a crisis in the Fifth (District),'' Solis said, urging the county's chief executive officer and other managers to step up their efforts in the Antelope Valley without starving other communities of resources.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said coordination between law enforcement and social workers is also critical to preventing child deaths.

``All of the departments that touch (child welfare) bear some level of responsibility,'' Ridley-Thomas said.

Legal and other requirements sometimes slow down coordination and action, according to Barger.

``The bureaucracy is killing me,'' she said.

A union leader said excessive administrative paperwork, heavy caseloads and trouble in staffing remote offices are all part of a ``broken system.''

Some social workers in Lancaster are juggling 30 cases, twice the number they can reasonably manage, according to David Green, a social worker and treasurer for the Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents county social workers.

However, Green accused the media of turning the county employee handling Noah's case into a villain.

``The social worker in this case did everything right,'' Green said.

Cagle still seems to have the support of the board.

``You inherited what I would say is a mess,'' Solis told Cagle.

The board directed staffers to report back in 45 days on all county interactions and any systemic issues related to Noah's death. The supervisors also asked for updates on collaboration across agencies, the capacity of medical hubs that support child welfare investigations, and hard data on the number of open positions and new hires in the Antelope Valley.

Barger urged the CEO and DCFS to use financial incentives, including higher pay and bonuses, to staff up offices.

Noah's death follows the deaths of two other Antelope Valley boys -- 10-year-old Anthony Avalos of Lancaster in June 2018 and 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale in May 2013 -- who were found to have suffered severe abuse in cases that raised questions about the effectiveness of DFCS personnel and policies.

In June 2018, Fernandez's mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, now 35, was sentenced to life in prison without parole and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, now 39, was sentenced to death for the torture killing of Gabriel. At the time of sentencing, Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli said the abuse suffered by the boy was ``horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil.''

In the Avalos case, his mother, Heather Maxine Barron, 29, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 33, have pleaded not guilty to killing and torturing the boy before his death and are awaiting trial.

Prosecutors allege Barron and Leiva starved and force-fed the youngster, slammed him onto the floor and into furniture, wouldn't let him go to the bathroom and had his siblings hurt Anthony.

In both cases, DCFS workers received reports about abuse, but each boy remained in the home with his mother and her boyfriend.

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