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California

‘This death happened on my watch.’ Child welfare chief takes heat over abused Palmdale boy

Noah Cuatro, seen in an undated photo provided by his great-grandmother, Eva Hernandez.
Noah Cuatro, shown in an undated photo provided by his great-grandmother, Eva Hernandez.
(KTLA)

Los Angeles County social workers are under fire again over the suspicious death of a Palmdale boy whose family had previously been investigated after serious allegations of abuse.

L.A. County’s child welfare chief faced sharp questioning Tuesday over why a 4-year-old Palmdale boy, who died earlier this month under what authorities call suspicious circumstances, wasn’t removed from his parents’ home amid abuse claims — despite a recent court order.

“This death happened on my watch,” Bobby Cagle, director of the county Department of Children and Family Services, told the Board of Supervisors. “I fully accept the responsibility for the work that was done. I also fully accept the responsibility for understanding what went wrong, what we can do better, and to implement that as quickly as possible.”

Noah died over the Fourth of July weekend. His parents, Jose and Ursula, called 911 saying Noah had drowned in a swimming pool of an apartment complex, but Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said the boy’s injuries were not consistent with that claim.

Foul play is suspected, given the years of documented abuse reports involving his parents. At the time of his death, Noah had been under active supervision by the DCFS after more than a dozen calls to the child-abuse hotline and police from people who said they suspected that the children in the home were being abused.

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Sheriff’s detectives are still investigating the death, which some say could have been prevented had county caseworkers placed the boy in foster care immediately after getting permission from a judge in May.

An attorney representing one of the boy’s relatives has called for a criminal investigation into the actions of those supervising the social workers assigned to the case.

Citing state law covering family cases, Cagle on Tuesday declined to discuss specifics about the case. But he seemed to appreciate the frustration of supervisors, who have had to respond to other high-profile child-abuse deaths in recent years.

This most recent case prompted Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Palmdale and the Antelope Valley, to formally seek more information from county officials about how child abuse cases are handled in her district.

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She at times appeared visibly angry, saying a full recounting of events was “imperative” for supervisors, who hold vast powers yet must rely on department heads and their employees to implement policy directives for the county.

“None of us want to be in a situation where we are responding to a child’s death, especially one where clearly … someone in the system was aware,” she said.

Barger continued, questioning what she said were “barriers” to reform at DCFS — an agency that was recently the subject of a critical audit by state officials that focused on lapses in its system for protecting abused children.

The audit noted staffing deficiencies and higher than recommended caseloads for social workers in Palmdale and Lancaster, a concern county officials have pledged to address in the past. Barger asked why more hadn’t been done — such as bonuses or traveling allowances — to add or retain staff in those places.

“This is going to be my personal project,” she said, threatening to bring officials back to the dais each week to seek answers. “I want swift action on this issue.”

Her colleagues on the board expressed similar concerns, backing Barger’s motion to formally ask county staff to provide updates on Noah’s case and several ongoing efforts to improve the child protection system.

“It was our job to try and save him, and we didn’t get him out of that home in time,” said board chair Supervisor Janice Hahn, who also expressed waning patience.

Meanwhile, Brian Claypool, attorney for Noah’s great-grandmother, Eva Hernandez, called for DCFS employees to be prosecuted if they disregarded a court decision in May to grant the boy’s removal from his parents’ custody in the weeks before his death.

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The Times reported earlier this month that Superior Court Commissioner Steven E. Ipson had agreed to remove Noah from his parents after a social worker filed a 26-page request with the court to do so, citing evidence of abuse.

The abuse, according to DCFS, included allegations that Noah had been sodomized. But that, for some reason, didn’t lead to his return to foster care, The Times has reported.

The court documents on Noah’s case are not publicly available because state law requires a lengthy review before releasing full case files in child fatality cases. DCFS officials are seeking permission from the court to do so, spokeswoman Michelle Vega said.

Investigators with the Sheriff’s Department declined to say more about the case. The boy’s parents couldn’t be reached for comment.

The social worker who handled Noah’s case, Susan Johnson, also couldn’t be reached for comment.

“The social worker in this case did everything right,” David Green, a colleague and officer with the Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents some county employees. “She acted like a hero.”

Yet questions remain, leading Claypool to call for a criminal investigation and additional scrutiny of the agency’s operations by state or federal watchdogs.

“Somebody within DCFS says, ‘We’re not going to follow that order,’ ” he said. “They have impeded justice.”


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