By the time the 5-year-old boy was rescued from a dark closet in San Bernardino County last year, much of his body had been burned by a glue gun and hot spoons. Johnny had been starved and sodomized, taunted and punched, forced to eat soap and crouch motionless in corners.
FOR THE RECORD:
Abused boy: An article in the Oct. 29 Section A about the abuse of a 5-year-old boy gave incorrect dates for the start and conclusion of an inquiry into his welfare conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. The investigation began in November 2006, not 2007, and closed in January 2007, not 2008; social worker Rocio La Voie was assigned to the case nearly three years before San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies rescued the boy, not two. The article also said that L.A. County child welfare officials determined more than a year before the child’s rescue that he was not at risk. It was more than two years before his rescue. —
Child welfare officials across the county line, in Los Angeles, might have spared him this. More than a year earlier, they had dismissed allegations that he had been abused as unfounded and determined that the “child [was] not at risk.”
A recent internal review by the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services concluded the finding was wrong — the result of a shallow inquiry in which the agency misjudged what little information it collected, according to records reviewed by The Times.
The department’s involvement in the case might never have come to light but for the decision by the supervising social worker on the case, Rocío La Voie, to appeal her 10-day suspension for mishandling it. In public records, she asserted that her conduct did not violate department procedures and disputed a finding that she exhibited poor judgment.
The case is one of many in recent years in which children have come to harm even after the department had looked into allegations of abuse or neglect. More than 65 children have died of abuse or neglect since the beginning of 2008 after being referred to the department, according to county statistics. The rate of such deaths has increased over that period, and county officials have acknowledged that many involved case management errors.
Based on a review of county data, a researcher hired by the state found that, since 2007, children left by the department in their homes after an investigation increasingly have experienced abuse again within a year.
Department Director Trish Ploehn declined to comment and did not respond to a request for public records related to Johnny’s case. Los Angeles County Chief Executive William T Fujioka did not return a call for comment, and county supervisors declined to do so. Zev Yaroslavsky, who said he was unaware of the case before The Times called him about it, said he was still trying to gather information.
La Voie, 40, was assigned to the case in November 2007, nearly two years before San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies rescued Johnny, when he and his mother, Desiree Gonzales, lived near MacArthur Park. A caller to a child abuse hotline reported that Gonzales beat and underfed him, and that the abuse was aggravated by her drug abuse.
Although they leave many questions unanswered, documents filed as part of La Voie’s pending appeal provide an outline of events:
La Voie’s team reviewed the case history showing that Gonzales, 32, had nearly a decade of run-ins with the department. Gonzales’ first two children had been removed from her care for abuse or neglect, which was not specified in the documents, and she had abandoned her third in the throes of methamphetamine addiction. Johnny, described by a San Bernardino County detective as remarkably precocious, was her fourth child.
Child welfare officials scheduled five drug tests for Gonzales. She missed or refused every one. They scheduled meetings to discuss the matter. She missed those too.
Without interviewing key witnesses, including the person Gonzales identified as the anonymous caller to the child abuse hotline, the social workers closed their inquiry in January 2008. The caseworkers did not appropriately assess safety risks, the county’s internal review later found. Had they done so, they would have had to place Johnny under intense oversight or remove him from his mother’s care, it found.
After the investigation was closed, Gonzales moved with Johnny to Apple Valley in San Bernardino County, settling into the home of her boyfriend and methamphetamine supplier Martin Morales, a gang member known by the moniker “Bullet,” San Bernardino Sheriff’s Det. Roxy Bessinger said in an interview. Also living in the home were Morales’ wife, Chrystal Rodriguez, and the couple’s nine children.
Morales dispatched his own children to steal mail as part of an identity theft scheme, Bessinger said. He pledged to toughen Johnny, she said, and make him a man.
In reality, Johnny was “systematically dehumanized” when his mother, her boyfriend and their associates malnourished, tortured and imprisoned him for months, according to Los Angeles County’s internal review.
According to Bessinger and the Los Angeles County documents, Johnny was forced to eat food scraps and lap water from a bowl like a dog; he was denied access to the bathroom; he was made to eat his own feces, urine and vomit and drink soda mixed with soap. Johnny’s tormenters made him sit in a corner, unable to lie down or move for extended stretches, sometimes taunting him with a plate of food they forbade him to eat, Bessinger said. His tongue was torn and one of Morales’ gang associates forced him to perform oral sex, leaving extensive sores in his mouth.
In August 2009, another anonymous call led to Johnny’s discovery by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies. Both his mother and her boyfriend were charged with torture and willful cruelty to a child, among other things. Five others, including the boyfriend’s wife, Rodriguez, were also charged in the case.
Morales and Rodriguez eluded authorities for a year, however, and had a 10th child before their arrest this summer. All 10 of their children were placed in protective custody.
Gonzales, Morales, Rodriguez and one of their associates have pleaded not guilty.
Two of Morales’ associates have been convicted as accessories in the case, and charges have been dismissed for one other.
Johnny has been placed by San Bernardino County social workers in a foster home and is in the final stages of adoption.
He is making good progress in mental health therapy three times a week, and recently was enrolled in a school program for academically gifted students, Bessinger said.
Besides La Voie, one Los Angeles County social worker involved in the case received a five-day suspension and the other received a three-day suspension, according to a source familiar with the matter.