In recent weeks, Anthony Avalos came out as gay, and authorities are now investigating whether homophobia played a role in the death of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy, a county official said in remarks reported Tuesday.
Anthony was found mortally wounded at his home Wednesday with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body. He died the next morning.
Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, revealed in an interview Monday that Anthony “said he liked boys,” but Nichols declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when, the Los Angeles Times reported. Nichols said the criminal investigation of the deadly abuse is ongoing.
Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, said it would have taken great courage for Anthony to have announced he was gay in the home. Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, have not been charged with any crimes related to Anthony’s death. DCFS has determined that Anthony probably died from child abuse.
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 was convicted in 2010 of domestic abuse.
For the boy to have come out amid those circumstances “only reinforces how brave Anthony was,” Maria Barron said.
Calling the boy’s death a “senseless murder,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she will ask Tuesday for a review of all county contacts with the boy’s family, seeking an answer to why he was not removed from his home despite repeated complaints to DCFS that he was being abused.
“The county is suffering a senseless murder of an innocent child, allegedly at the hands of someone inside the home, while law enforcement, social workers and family preservation workers all interacted with the family,” said Barger, whose motion will be considered at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “We need to identify how our previous efforts to enhance and expand services and integrate county partners have succeeded, and determine where there are continual gaps and barriers.”
Barger’s motion asks for a close look at services provided in the Antelope Valley in particular.
The review, almost certain to be approved by the board, will involve the Office of Child Protection, law enforcement and the Department of Children and Family Services. The group will evaluate staffing, supervision and collaboration, or the lack thereof, between social workers and law enforcement officers in child abuse and neglect referrals.
The Office of Child Protection was established to transform the child welfare system in response to the 2013 murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale. Gabriel was long tortured and ultimately beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend despite numerous previous reports of abuse to DCFS.
Like Gabriel, Anthony, was the subject of years of severe abuse allegations, sources told the Los Angeles Times. Anthony died with serious head injuries, cigarette burns covering his body, the newspaper reported. His mother’s boyfriend was reported to suspect that the 8-year-old was gay.
The coroner’s office has placed a security hold on the case and no arrests have been made as of Tuesday morning, according to the Sheriff’s Information Bureau.
School administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others called police or the child abuse hotline at least 16 times since 2013 to report child abuse in Anthony’s Lancaster home, according to sources who reviewed county documents in the case.
The callers reported 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, the sources told The Times.
The callers made allegations against several family members, including his mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, according to the sources. The sexual abuse allegation was made against another family member who Barron and Leiva continued to use for child care even after being made aware of the accusation, the sources said.
At a vigil for the boy on Thursday, relatives disagreed over whether he was mistreated by his mother, with a cousin calling her a good mother.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call from his mother about 12:15 p.m. Wednesday and found the boy unresponsive inside his family’s apartment. Authorities said they were told the boy had suffered injuries from a fall. He died at a hospital Thursday morning, and investigators classified the death as ”suspicious.”
County officials have removed seven other children from the home as the investigation continues.
Although many of the reports of the children’s alleged abuse at Anthony’s home came from professionals or eyewitnesses, caseworkers who investigated the abuse allegations only marked some as “substantiated,” and they only briefly placed Anthony in the care of an aunt and uncle, according to The Times sources.
Anthony was returned to his mother’s home over his relatives’ protests, Maria Barron, told The Times in an interview.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services has filed papers under state disclosure law saying Anthony’s death likely resulted from child abuse, The Times reported.
County sources were not willing to comment on whether any specific case management errors had been identified or whether any administrative action had been taken against social workers or supervisors responsible for Anthony Avalos’ case, including putting anyone on desk duty pending the outcome of an investigation.
Four DCFS officials facing trial over Gabriel Fernandez’s death are due in court Tuesday for a pretrial hearing. Gabriel’s mother was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison without the possibility of parole and her boyfriend was sentenced to death.
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