“I’ve never had problems with them,” says neighbor of 4-year-old boy allegedly abused by foster mom
The two young brothers always looked healthy and well-groomed to Anel Villanueva, who lived next door to them at the Villa Hermosa Apartments in Norwalk.
Their foster mother, Gabriela Casarez, told Villanueva that she couldn’t have biological children and was hoping to adopt someday.
Villanueva, who manages the apartment complex, is struggling to comprehend what happened Oct. 28, when 4-year-old Andres was taken away on a stretcher by paramedics.
Casarez, 26, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of child abuse and one count of assault leading to coma or paralysis.
Andres, identified in court documents as “Andres F.,” remains in the hospital with life-threatening injuries.
“I’ve never had problems with them,” Villanueva said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Andres was the latest child to be severely abused while under the care of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
Earlier this week, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told county leaders that he plans to step down before the end of the year.
A person familiar with Cagle’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the outgoing director as “exhausted” and said his departure was not forced by a particular case.
But Andres’ abuse had drawn criticism from other county officials, including the Board of Supervisors, which has commissioned an investigation into DCFS’ handling of the case.
Unlike Gabriel Fernandez, Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro — children in the DCFS system who died in recent years after being abused by caretakers — Andres was in the custody of a foster parent, not a birth parent.
His case also raises questions about DCFS’ treatment of Indigenous families from Latin America.
The investigation will focus on the handling of the case by the Department of Children and Family Services and other agencies, including how social workers addressed language barriers.
Andres’ birth mother is a Guatemalan immigrant who primarily speaks Akateko, an Indigenous Mayan language.
His 2-year-old brother, Emiliano, was also in Casarez’s custody and remains in the foster care system.
Casarez’s attorney has not responded to requests for comment.
Michael Alder, an attorney for Andres’ birth family, said DCFS has been slow to provide updates.
The family does not know who is caring for Emiliano, and they have little information on Andres’ recovery at a Long Beach hospital, Alder said.
A relative said on social media that Andres has emerged from a coma. His family fears that he could be paralyzed or left with other lifelong disabilities.
“I don’t think it’s hit them quite yet, what it’s like to have a child injured in this way,” Alder said.
Alder declined to say why DCFS took Andres and Emiliano from their birth mother.
The birth mother said the boys were getting skinny in Casarez’s care, their aunt, Maria Jacinto, told independent journalist Alberto Godinez in an interview in early November.
“They were punished if they asked to see their mom,” Jacinto said in Spanish. “They were scared to ask for their mom. She [Casarez] hid them and threatened them in some way.”
Jacinto placed some blame on the boys’ DCFS caseworker, saying she should have been checking on the kids.
“I think it had to do with the caseworker wanting power, making people feel ‘less than’ when they don’t speak Spanish or English,” Jacinto said.
In 2010, police killed a man who spoke an indigenous language and did not comply with orders in English and Spanish. Now, they’re getting help to find interpreters and improve communication.
Andres, who speaks mostly Akateko and doesn’t understand Spanish well, arrived at the hospital with bruises, burns and head injuries, she said.
Interpreter Aurora Pedro, who is fluent in Akateko, said a common misperception is that Indigenous languages are dialects of Spanish.
Los Angeles County is home to more than 30 Indigenous groups from Mexico and Central America who speak at least 17 languages, according to data collected by Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, or CIELO.
Many people wrongly assume these residents are fluent in Spanish, when some are not, said Pedro, who is the coordinator of CIELO’s Indigenous interpreter program.
“Saying one word or two words in Spanish ... does not mean they can go through whole systems — judicial systems — without interpreters,” Pedro said. “The language used in a judicial setting is so different from a casual setting, which is why we always advocate for folks to have interpreters, even if they only understand one or two words or they speak casual Spanish.”
Casarez is in jail on $1.2 million bail. Her next court date is Dec. 6.
Back in Norwalk, neighbors are haunted by the seemingly happy family.
Casarez shared her two-bedroom apartment on the first floor with a man, in addition to the two foster children.
Jessica Rios, 49, who lives across the complex from Casarez, watched as police spent hours investigating inside the apartment.
She gets chills thinking about what is alleged to have happened to Andres.
“Se siente feo,” she said — it’s an ugly feeling that she was so close by and noticed nothing.
If she had known, she said, “I would have been there, with pain in my heart, to drag her through all of Norwalk.”
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
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