After boy’s death, family sues L.A. County’s child welfare agency for $50 million
The family of Anthony Avalos alleges that social workers willfully disregarded concerns about abuse and failed to protect the boy before his death.
Even years later, tears still flow easily for Maria Barron when she describes her efforts to rescue her nephew, Anthony Avalos, from his abusive Antelope Valley home.
She had been a constant presence in Anthony’s life — potty training, consulting with his teachers in preschool, hearing his boyhood dreams about being a fireman. Before his death at age 10, the boy confided in her and her husband about the abuse, too.
“One of the last things he said to me was ‘I can’t wait until you and Uncle David can be my new mom and dad,’” she said, sobbing at a news conference Thursday morning.
Yet she said she couldn’t persuade the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to grant her custody of Anthony and his siblings, despite reports of abuse and neglect over several years.
Barron spoke up Thursday to support a new lawsuit by other relatives of Anthony’s against the county, the DCFS and one of its contractors, alleging that social workers willfully disregarded concerns about abuse and failed to protect Anthony. They are seeking $50 million in damages.
“DCFS turned a blind eye to the situation, knowing what was going on with those kids — all the pain and suffering they were going through,” Barron said outside DCFS headquarters in Koreatown.
Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, are awaiting trial onin 2018. They could face the death penalty.
In a written statement, DCFS spokeswoman Amara Suarez declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the department had an “unwavering commitment to pursue child safety” when handling more than 30,000 family and child welfare cases each year.
“Our 9,000 employees do not take this commitment lightly and look to do everything possible to safeguard the children in our care,” she wrote. “All DCFS employees are held to the highest standards to ensure that the public trust in our service is honored and maintained.”
The lawsuit was brought by Victor Avalos, Anthony’s biological father who lives in Mexico, and the boy’s siblings, who remain in foster care, relatives say. Filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles, the suit cites numerous causes of action, including wrongful death, gross negligence and civil rights violations.
The 57-page complaint, filed Thursday by Avalos’ Pasadena attorneys, Brian Claypool and Nathalie Vallejos, claims a “custom and practice of deliberate indifference” by the DCFS. In dense detail, it outlines numerous instances of violence, sexual abuse and neglect against Anthony and his siblings — beginning in 2014 — before the boy’s death four years later.
“There were probably 10 instances in which any reasonable social worker would have permanently removed Anthony and those kids from that home, given the danger they were in,” Claypool said.
The lawsuit also recounts allegations that a DCFS social worker laughed while describing abuse against Anthony — an interaction recorded on the department’s hotline.
Prosecutors have alleged in court papers that Leiva “frustrated easily” and repeatedly hit the children, sometimes with hoses, and withheld food from them. The reports also said Heather Barron screamed at her children, showed no affection and “seemed completely detached.”
The lawsuit also names Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, a Pasadena-based contractor for the DCFS that offers mental health and welfare services. The suit alleges that an employee may have failed to report abuse she witnessed at Anthony’s Lancaster home.
Hathaway-Sycamores officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The same Hathaway-Sycamores employee worked with the family of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was tortured and killed by his mother Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
In that 2013 case, DCFS social workers also missed red flags. It became a symbol of bureaucratic failure and propelled what were meant to be far-reaching reforms within the county’s child welfare system.
The legal action on Thursday is the latest headache for the DCFS, which is still reeling from Anthony‘s death and the negative state audit it prompted. The department has engaged in a spurt of new hiring and reform efforts under Director Bobby Cagle, who spent time in foster care growing up in North Carolina.
The DCFS also is facing fresh criticism over its handling of the case of Noah Cuatro. The 4-year-old Palmdale boy died July 6 — weeks after the department sought and received permission from a judge to remove him from an abusive home in May, but then failed to follow through on.
His parents, Jose and Ursula, called 911 over the Fourth of July weekend, saying Noah had drowned in the 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 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 both the child-abuse hotline and police from people who said they suspected children in their home were being abused.
Sheriff’s detectives are still investigating the case as a suspicious death, which some say could have been prevented had social workers placed the boy in foster care immediately after getting permission from the judge to do so.
The details of the department’s extremely rare decision not to execute the removal order remain secret.
However, in response to a request by The Times, the DCFS on Wednesday night released 117 pages of heavily redacted reports in Noah‘s case. The documents confirm the timeline of the department’s interaction with the boy’s family — including allegations of sexual assault by his father — but don’t explain why he remained in the home.
In addition to the civil case filed Thursday, Claypool — who also represents Noah’s great-grandmother — sent letters to California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr, asking for state and federal investigations.
Maria Barron said she joined the news conference, which included a gathering of about a dozen protesters carrying signs such as “Enough is enough” and “Fix this broken system,” because she still hasn’t resolved the pain of losing Anthony — and her belief that the DCFS is responsible.
“DCFS has really failed us terribly,” she said. “Hopefully this is a wake-up call so not one more family has to go through this.”
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