An attorney representing the family of a 10-year-old boy who was allegedly tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend in Lancaster called Tuesday for a criminal investigation into social workers who investigated allegations of abuse in the household.
“This is a case of flat-out, deliberate indifference toward the life of Anthony Avalos,” the family’s attorney, Brian Claypool, said at a news conference outside the Los Angeles headquarters of the county Department of Children and Family Services. “These records that we have today clearly demonstrate and social workers within L.A. County DCFS had massive red flags of a household replete with horror, a household where many of the kids were allegedly abused, not just Anthony Avalos. Because of this, we are calling for a criminal investigation. We would like social workers investigated for child abuse and criminal negligence.”
The boy’s mother, Heather Maxine Barron, 28, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, are charged with killing the boy, and torturing him in the days leading up to his June 21 death. The two are awaiting arraignment Aug. 3 in a Lancaster courtroom.
Deputies and paramedics responded to a 911 call from Barron about 12:15 p.m. June 20 and found her son unresponsive inside his family’s apartment.
Claypool — who was joined by the boy’s father, Victor Avalos, and the boy’s aunt and uncle, Maria and David Barron — said he has obtained documents that are a “recipe for a criminal investigation,” noting that the records show 18 separate investigations into the household by DCFS over a four-year period beginning in 2013 and 88 alleged instances of child abuse, sexual abuse and child neglect.
“We have counted 15 substantiated allegations of child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse,” Claypool said. “Of those 15 substantianted, we have counted at least two, possibly three substantiated sex abuse claims. Now you tell me if that was not enough information for a well-trained, compassionate social worker to immediately remove and permanently remove not only Anthony Avalos but all those (six other) kids in the house.”
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the family’s request, according to a spokesman for the office.
In a statement released shortly after the family’s news conference, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said, “As our department grieves the senseless death of Anthony Avalos, my primary focus must be on the in-depth, top-to-bottom review now underway to determine exactly what happened and what needs to happen to safeguard innocent lives going forward.”
“We also are committed to doing all we can to cooperate with the Sheriff’s Department as their criminal investigation proceeds,” he said. “Thank you for understanding that these are my most urgent priorities. We will be happy to share additional information and insights with you when appropriate.”
Prosecutors contend in court papers that Anthony was severely tortured during the last five or six days of his life, alleging that Barron and Leiva “abused, beat, assaulted and tortured Anthony Avalos,”
The alleged abuse included whipping the boy with a belt and a looped cord, pouring hot sauce on his face and mouth, holding him by his feet and dropping him on his head repeatedly, according to the court papers filed earlier this month.
Speaking at Tuesday’s news conference with Claypool, Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, said her nephew “did not deserve all the pain he endured.”
“Why? Why did DCFS fail him?” she asked. “Why did they not take action? He had so many people that loved him, so many people willing to take him in.”
She called the boy a “true hero” who “had to sacrifice his life in order to save his siblings.”
The boy’s uncle, David Barron, said, “The system was supposed to be in place to protect him and they failed to do their job, and now we are feeling the repercussions of it. We are missing our Anthony now because they failed to do their job when they had proof. They had the evidence right there on these documents and they refused to do anything about it. We’re here to make sure this doesn’t happen again to (any) other kid. No family should be having to go through what we’re going through.”
He said that he and his wife kept the children at their house “once the kids admitted to us about the abuse that was going on at the house,” but the childrens’ mother was deemed fit two weeks later for the children to return to their household and that he and his wife had done everything they legally possibly could since they were not the biological parents.
“She (the boy’s mother) stopped contacting us for three years after we made those reports because she was holding a grudge against us so we weren’t able really to know what was going on after that,” David Barron said, telling reporters that authorities “basically signed his (Anthony’s) death warrant by putting him back in the house with them.”
The boy’s father — who wiped tears from his eyes during the news conference — told reporters he also wants justice for his son.
About two years ago, the District Attorney’s Office filed charges against two former social workers and their supervisors, who are awaiting trial on charges of child abuse and falsifying records for allegedly failing to protect another boy — 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale — from deadly abuse by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
Aguirre was convicted this year of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, and the boy’s mother was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in the boy’s death.
A county Office of Child Protection was also established to transform the child welfare system in response to Gabriel’s death.
Last month, the county Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Kathryn Barger calling for a thorough review of why Anthony wasn’t removed from his family home, despite multiple reports to the DCFS.
“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 they would wait for all the facts to come in before drawing conclusions about exactly what happened to the boy. But Barger called it a “senseless murder,” explaining that “we don’t have a conclusion, but there’s no other explanation.”