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Family of malnourished boy found dead in Echo Park closet had been reported to social workers six times

Days apart in 2012, two teachers contacted the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services about a young boy named Yonatan Daniel Aguilar.

One reported that the boy was suffering from general neglect. Another said he had a black eye.

County social workers interviewed school employees, including a soccer coach and a special education teacher. And, because it involved an allegation of possible physical abuse, the black eye was cross-reported to Los Angeles police, who also looked into it.

County officials and police determined the boy to be living in a safe environment. Four years later, the child was found dead in a closet, appearing to suffer from physical abuse and malnutrition. Several law enforcement sources told The Times that Yonatan, 11, was severely underweight with festering wounds and healed injuries that showed signs of long-term abuse. 

The boy’s family had been the subject of six prior reports to DCFS, the department’s director, Philip L. Browning, said Monday. Two reports in 2002 pre-dated Yonatan’s birth and involved at least one of his siblings, Browning said. 

Browning shared details about prior reports after DCFS received a court order from Michael Levanas, presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s Juvenile Division, to release more information about the case. 

On Aug. 22, Los Angeles police found Yonatan lying in a closet, wrapped in a blanket, in the family’s home in the 2100 block of Santa Ynez Street. The boy had been dead for at least several hours, authorities said. 

His mother, Veronica Aguilar, 39, was charged Thursday with one count each of murder and child abuse resulting in death.

In addition to the two reports made about Yonatan in 2012, there was one report in 2011 and one in 2009. Yonatan was a special education student who saw a school psychologist and may have had behavioral issues, Browning said.

Browning said Monday that his department is conducting an internal investigation and that, so far, social workers in Yonatan’s cases appeared to have done good work interviewing numerous people who had contact with him and interviewing him apart from his parents. 

The LAPD was aware of any report that involved possible physical abuse, Browning said.

In 2009, DCFS received a report of possible physical abuse that came from police, who had received the information from the child’s school, Browning said. Social workers interviewed a school nurse, the principal and the school psychologist before determining that no abuse occurred and a full investigation was not warranted.

The LAPD also investigated that report, he said.

“There was not just one set of eyes here,” Browning said.

In 2011, a hospital social worker reported the boy was suffering from general neglect — a term often used to signify an unclean home, Browning said. Doctors and a clinical therapist were interviewed before social workers ruled out opening a case.

The two separate reports to DCFS from teachers in 2012 came days apart. School employees, Kaiser Permanente staff, a soccer coach and a special education teacher were among those interviewed by social workers, and the black eye was cross-reported to police, Browning said. 

The boy later denied the black eye had been the result of abuse, saying he fell on a rock pile while playing soccer, Browning said. Social workers talked to his coach, who could not confirm his account. 

After 2012, the boy fell off the county’s radar, Browning said. There were no other reports about him to the department, and DCFS does not have the legal right to inquire about him without a report.

“We don’t have any authority to intercede or intrude on a family after we have determined there has been no abuse,” Browning said. “We cannot call and just check up on you and check for abuse.… We might have made a difference if we’d gotten a phone call.”

Browning said he is concerned about whether anyone else saw signs of abuse but did not report them. 

Capt. Julian Melendez, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Juvenile Division, told The Times last week that Yonatan’s mother has at least three other children, ages 14, 16 and 18. They were not at the Echo Park home last week while investigators were looking into Yonatan’s death, but they were tracked down and contacted by police, he said. The minors were released to DCFS, he said. 

Melendez said last week that he was aware of three reports to DCFS of possible abuse regarding Yonatan that had been cross-reported to police but did not trigger an investigation by Juvenile Division detectives. 

The child had not attended classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District since 2012 and was thought to have been in Mexico for some time, according to the LAPD. It was unclear whether the boy attended school in another district. 

LAPD authorities and county officials said the family seemed to have moved numerous times. 

On Monday, Ed Winter, a spokesman for the L.A. County coroner’s office, said the boy’s autopsy had been put on a security hold by law enforcement and that no details regarding the cause of death or the condition of the child could be released. 

Browning defended his social workers’ handling of Yonatan’s case. “This situation is not at all like the Gabriel Fernandez case,” he said, referring to the 2013 killing of an 8-year-old boy, who was allegedly beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend even though DCFS social workers received several abuse reports.  Four social workers have been charged with felony child abuse and falsifying records in connection with Gabriel’s killing.  

Browning said that in inquiries about Yonatan, social workers were able to interview parents and children apart and talked to several people after each report.

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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