Reports of abuse of a 10-year-old Lancaster boy who died last week ended in 2016, leading county officials Tuesday 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, including a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse by a grandparent when the boy was 4 years old.
“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.
Anthony had reportedly come out as gay in recent weeks, according to the Los Angeles Times, which cited an interview with Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
When asked about what Nichols told the newspaper, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told City News Service that he was told that Anthony said “he liked boys and girls” and that the context of the boy’s comment was not entirely clear.
Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, told The Times it would have taken great courage for him to have announced he was gay in the home.
DCFS has filed disclosure documents required by the state indicating the boy’s death was likely due to abuse or neglect, though no arrests have been made thus far.
Tuesday afternoon, Cagle released a statement laying out additional details, including that Anthony had been severely beaten and was malnourished when paramedics arrived last Wednesday in response to a 911 call from his mother.
The first call to DCFS was in February 2013 alleging sexual abuse of then-4-year-old Anthony by a grandparent not living in the home. The allegation was substantiated, and the boy was given a medical exam and referred for services. Following a second call in March 2013, repeating the same allegation, the case was closed when social workers determined that the mother was “appropriately safe,” according to Cagle’s statement.
The remaining 10 reports involved allegations of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, as well as general neglect, Cagle said. Some were substantiated, while others were unfounded.
“In private interviews, Anthony disclosed details consistent with media reports that he was beaten, locked up, and not fed,” according to the statement.
Anthony was sent to live with relatives while the family received in-home counseling, medical and other services and ultimately returned home when social workers deemed it was safe to do so.
The last call to DCFS, alleging general neglect, was made in April 2016. Anthony was interviewed, the allegations were “deemed unfounded or inconclusive” and the referral was closed in May 2016, Cagle said.
The DCFS director said he was committed to transparency and had asked juvenile court officials to release the information on an expedited basis.
“We do not have all the answers we seek, and some questions may never be fully answered,” Cagle said. “The reality is that we need everyone’s help to keep kids safe. This includes our partners in schools, health, law enforcement, families, neighbors, community providers — everyone.”
Callers to DCFS 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. Barron and Leiva continued to use the grandparent who allegedly sexually abused Anthony for child care even after being made aware of the accusation, the sources alleged to the newspaper.
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,” he told CNS.
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 front line 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.”