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Social workers should be criminally investigated for Anthony Avalos' death, family says

Social workers should be criminally investigated for Anthony Avalos' death, family says
Victor Avalos, center, father of Anthony Avalos, called for a criminal investigation into social workers in connection with the 10-year-old's death. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Relatives of Anthony Avalos are demanding that prosecutors criminally investigate any social workers connected to the slain 10-year-old, saying they failed to remove the boy from his mother’s home despite years of documented abuse.

“We are calling for a criminal investigation. We would like social workers investigated for felony child abuse and criminal negligence,” said attorney Brian Claypool, who is representing Anthony’s aunt, uncle and father.

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Documents from the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services show that since 2013, the agency had investigated 88 claims of abuse at the home, and found that 15 of those claims were “substantiated,” Claypool said. The claims included Anthony and other siblings and at least two of the substantiated claims involved sexual abuse, he said. Anthony lived in the home with six siblings.

At a press conference outside the county agency headquarters in Koreatown on Tuesday morning, Claypool told reporters that the documents were heavily redacted, so he did not know how many social workers should be investigated or who they are.

The boy’s death remains under investigation, and a spokesman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment on whether social workers were part of that probe.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also declined to say whether family services agency employees were subjects of the investigation.

“Homicide investigators are looking at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the death of Anthony Avalos. There is an ongoing criminal investigation,” said Nicole Nishida of the Sheriff’s Department.

Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, have both been charged in Anthony’s death. The district attorney filed court papers alleging that the boy suffered at least five days of sustained torture that culminated in his death.

The district attorney’s office said that Anthony’s mother and her boyfriend poured hot sauce on Anthony’s face and mouth, whipped the boy with a looped cord and belt, held him upside-down and dropped him on his head repeatedly. Prosecutors also alleged that the couple alternately withheld food and force-fed him, slammed him into furniture and the floor, denied access to the bathroom and enlisted other children in the home to inflict pain.

Barron’s attorney declined to comment on any of the allegations against Barron, and Leiva’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Heather Barron, mother of Anthony Avalos, appears in a Lancaster courtroom in June.
Heather Barron, mother of Anthony Avalos, appears in a Lancaster courtroom in June. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday morning outside the Children and Family Services agency, Anthony’s family members and family friends wore shirts with the boy’s photo, held up signs that read “DCFS is a mess” and “The system failed Anthony.” They also chanted, “not one more.”

Claypool described the home as a prison for the children that other family members were kept out of — the only people who had access and the power to save the children, he said, were the social workers.

Victor Avalos said he tried to visit his son but the mother kept him away, saying she was not home or was out of town. When he would FaceTime Anthony and ask if he was doing OK, he said, the boy would just look down instead of answering the question.

Barron’s brother and his wife, David and Maria Barron, said they found out about the problems in 2015, took the children into their own home and reported the abuse, but authorities took the children back to their mother’s house. For the next three years, their mother wouldn’t talk to them or let them see the children, they said. All seven of the children were siblings, but some had different fathers, David Barron said.

Anthony’s aunt and uncle said that if social workers had paid attention to their own records and acted appropriately, Anthony would be alive.

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“It was their turn to do their job,” David Barron said.

In one county safety assessment that Claypool provided, the “yes” box was checked for “Caregiver is unable or unwilling to protect the child from serious harm or threatened harm by others.”

In other cases, there were reports of abuse without any details about the investigation into the reports, Claypool said.

“I have never seen more red flags of an impending death of a child,” Claypool said, adding: “That is deliberate indifference toward the life of a little boy.”

Anthony was a sweet boy with a big smile who loved sports and dancing, said his aunt, Maria Barron. “He was full of life, he wanted to be somebody,” she said. But the systems meant to ensure he had that chance, failed him, she said.

“Anyone that had to do with his case and did nothing about it should be held accountable for their actions,” she said.

Department of Children and Family Services Director Bobby Cagle said in an interview Tuesday that he was aware of a call to criminally investigate social workers, but declined to comment on any conversations with the district attorney's office. He said no case workers have been placed on desk duty or disciplined.

“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,” Cagle said in a separate email statement, via a spokeswoman. “We also are committed to doing all we can to cooperate with the Sheriff's Department as their criminal investigation proceeds.”

Claypool said the medical examiner has not yet concluded its investigation, and the family may pursue civil action when that report is complete.

This kind of investigation would not be unprecedented. A judge last year ruled that four social workers should stand trial on charges of child abuse in the death of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old boy from Palmdale who died, allegedly at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, in 2013.

“There is utter and complete chaos that’s going on in this agency,” Claypool said. “Is there a failure of communication within L.A. County DCFS? Is there falsifying of documents going on within L.A. County DCFS? We need a full and utter criminal investigation to make that determination.”

4:50 p.m.: This story was updated with an additional comment from Cagle.

This story originally published at 2:35 p.m.

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