The great-grandmother of a 4-year-old Palmdale boy whose death was originally reported as a drowning but has led to an investigation of possible child abuse filed a multimillion-dollar damages claims against the county, the first step toward a lawsuit, her attorney announced Wednesday.
Attorney Brian Claypool said the claim was filed Tuesday on behalf of Eva Hernandez, great-grandmother of Noah Cuatro, and another was filed on behalf of the boy’s estate.
The claims contend that Noah died “after countless reports of abuse” that had been made to the county Department of Children and Family Services.
“There were at least a dozen calls made to the child abuse hotline and police from people who said they suspected Cuatro and his siblings were being abused,” according to the claim filed on behalf of Hernandez.
DCFS issued a statement, saying, “At any given time, the Department of Children and Family Services serves more than 34,000 families and vulnerable children in Los Angeles County with an unwavering commitment to pursue child safety every day in our communities. Our 9,000 employees are committed to this mission, and we look to do everything possible to safeguard the children entrusted to our care.
“We cannot comment on any pending claim, litigation or lawsuit involving the department at this time,” according to DCFS.
Earlier this year, however, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told the Board of Supervisors: “This death happened on my watch. I fully accept the responsibility for the work that was done.”
Noah’s parents reported a 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. Medical staff found the trauma he had suffered inconsistent with drowning.
The youngster was taken first to Palmdale Regional Medical Center and then to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he was pronounced dead July 6.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced the following week that an investigation was underway into the boy’s death. Villanueva said Noah lived with his parents and three siblings. Authorities said those siblings have been taken into protective custody.
No arrests have been made.
According to the claim, Noah was repeatedly removed from his mother’s care, once after she was arrested and another time due to neglect, but each time he was returned to the home.
“In February 2019, a DCFS caseworker noted that Cuatro appeared lethargic and withdrawn,” according ot the claim. “There were then three more referrals in March and April, including a report that Cuatro arrived at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar with bruises on his back.”
The claim also contends that in May, a DCFS caseworker filed a 26-page petition to have Noah removed from his parents’ custody. That petition was granted, “but willfully ignored by DCFS,” according to the claim.
The claim also points to redacted DCFS records showing high or very high risk assessments in the case, with one caseworker noting, “There are current concerns for the mother’s mental health.”
“DCFS employees ignored reports that Cuatro and his siblings were abused and in danger,” according to the document. “Instead of protecting Cuatro and his siblings, DCFS continued to place the children with their parents where the children continued to be abused over the course of several years.”
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 announced Wednesday they will be seeking the death penalty against the pair.
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.