LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A therapist who was sent to do an assessment at the Lancaster home of a boy less than four years before his death testified Tuesday that she had grave concerns about the way his mother behaved toward her children.
Wendy Wright said she called a child abuse hotline in October 2014 to report her concerns about Heather Maxine Barron because she felt a social worker was not taking her seriously and was going to close the case against the woman, whom the prosecution witness described as "very detached" and "very cold."
Barron, 33, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving the June 2018 death of Barron's 10-year-old son, Anthony Avalos, along with two counts of child abuse involving the boy's half-siblings, identified in court as "Destiny O." and "Rafael O."
The murder charge includes the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Over Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami's objection, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two after the election of District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a directive that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case."
Leiva and Barron now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged in the non-jury trial before Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta.
"It was just a constant barrage of negativity," the marriage and family therapist testified Tuesday about what she witnessed of Barron's interaction with her children. "It was striking ... This is still striking."
Wright, a marriage and family therapist who worked at the time for the Children's Center of Antelope Valley, said she informed the social worker that she believed Barron had no intention of following through with services and that she desperately needed parenting classes. She noted that the woman called one of her younger sons names and accused her daughter of "faking it" when she cried while her mother ripped a brush through her tangled hair.
The judge also heard testimony from four social workers from the county's Department of Children and Family Services who responded to a series of calls to the child abuse hotline involving the boy's mother, including the call from the therapist, along with a social worker who responded to Leiva's parents' home following the 911 call made by Barron about Anthony a day before his death.
Social worker Shane Bulkley told the judge that Barron acknowledged she had wielded a belt on the children and used hot sauce as a disciplinary measure in the past, but that he and his supervisor found there wasn't sufficient evidence to corroborate the concerns expressed by the therapist in her October 2014 hotline call.
A former social worker who was assigned to investigate three hotline calls made in September 2015 testified that there had already been seven prior referrals involving the family.
Ikea Dayshell Vernon said she spoke with Anthony, who informed her while he was living with his aunt and uncle that his mother locked him and his half-siblings in their rooms, that she and Leiva hit them and that he was never going to see his mother again. But Vernon said the boy and his half-siblings subsequently recanted after they moved back to his mother's home. She said there appeared to be a feud between the boy's mother and her brother and his wife, and said that the children wound up staying with their mother after the results of the investigation were inconclusive.
She said she did not seek a warrant to remove the children from their mother's custody.
Another social worker, Anna Sciortino, testified that she wound up serving a warrant to remove Anthony's half-brother, Angel, from his father's home after Barron reported that the man had injured her ribs during a confrontation and that Anthony expressed fear of his half-sibling's father. She said she had initially responded in April 2015 to a hotline call made about Angel, who had told a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy that Barron caused an injury to his ear in an allegation that she said was subsequently determined to be unfounded based on documentation from a day care facility.
A third social worker, Lusine Khachatryan, said she visited Barron after a call of suspected abuse was made to the hotline in April 2014 and that she denied physically abusing her children, although she said Anthony -- who was then 6 years old -- reported to her that his mother was engaging in physical discipline with a paddle and a belt and that she was locking him and his siblings in their bedroom.
The social worker testified that she also informed the woman that it was inappropriate to allow her then-3-year-old son, Rafael, to take an unsupervised bath during her visit to the home. Barron admitted that she was five months pregnant at the time, but refused to provide information about Leiva or the father of one of her other sons, according to Khachatryan.
She acknowledged that she allowed Anthony and his half-siblings to remain with Barron after speaking with her supervisor and determining that they didn't have enough to file a case with the dependency court.
Retired social worker Jasmin Carrillo told the judge that she went to the home of Leiva's parents in Rosamond after Anthony was taken to the hospital in June 2018 and and was handed a document in which Leiva had authorized his rights to his three youngest children to his parents and his sister.
When he returned to the home, he was "very emotional," was pacing and had his hands on his head, she said.
"He kept saying he didn't know what happened," she testified, adding that his two older daughters "denied any type of neglect or abuse by their father."
In testimony last week, Leiva's daughter, Priscilla, now 18, told the judge that she saw her dad repeatedly dropping Anthony on the floor and that the boy appeared to be dead when she saw him two days later.
During his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri told the judge that Barron and Leiva tortured and abused Anthony for two weeks before his death, while an attorney for Leiva countered that his client should be acquitted of murder.
"Anthony Avalos graduated the fourth grade on June 7th, 2018, and for two consecutive weeks he was abused and tortured every single day culminating to when the first responders found his lifeless body on June 20th," Teymouri said.
The boy died early the next morning.
Teymouri told the judge that there had been multiple contacts with the county's Department of Children and Family Services dating back to 2014.
"She's been torturing her kids for a long period of time, and once defendant Leiva came into the picture it turned deadly," he said.
The prosecutor said the boy was "already brain dead" and had been lying on the floor in the family's townhouse "for at least a day, possibly more" when Barron called 911 to seek assistance for the boy, and that the two "concocted a story that Anthony Avalos had injured himself."
Leiva subsequently acknowledged that he had the boy kneel on uncooked rice and admitted that he had rendered him unconscious for about five minutes just days earlier, according to the prosecutor.
Leiva's attorney countered that the evidence would demonstrate that there is "reasonable doubt" involving the murder charge against his client.
Dan Chambers said the two major issues will be "a lack of intent to kill" and the issues of "causation."
The defense lawyer questioned the accounts of the boy's half-siblings, whose testimony he said has changed over time.
Chambers told the judge that many of the statements by the children are "inconsistent," saying that their initial statements "showed a lack of any actions on behalf of Mr. Leiva with respect to the treatment of Anthony" and that "Mr. Leiva's conduct allegedly grew worse" as the children underwent further questioning.
"Those inconsistencies in the evidence will be apparent and once we demonstrate that it will show that what the children claim they say Mr. Leiva doing is inconsistent with the medical evidence," the defense attorney said.
"This case is a case of severe abuse, but as to Mr. Leiva, it is not a murder," the defense lawyer told the judge.
One of Barron's attorneys, Nancy Sperber, opted not to make an opening statement.
Barron and Leiva were charged in June 2018 with the boy's killing and were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury in October 2018. They remain jailed without bail.
Last October, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally approved a $32 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by the boy's relatives -- two of whom testified last week that they notified the county's Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse. The lawsuit contended that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.
The lawsuit cited other high-profile deaths of children who were also being monitored by the DCFS -- 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, both of Palmdale -- to allege "systemic failures" in the agency.