Child protection workers knew that pushing Luiz Fuentes to face his demons would be hard.
“Father feels that counseling will not be beneficial to him because it will force him to remember when all he wants is to forget,” county caseworkers told the court in September 2010, shortly after they determined that Fuentes had badly bruised his son Luis, then 5, by beating him with a belt.
“The potential for father to lose control again is present and likely,” the caseworkers continued.
Five years later, Fuentes was charged with fatally stabbing Luis and the boy’s two younger brothers in the back seat of the family’s car.
The deaths have prompted questions about whether the county could have done more to prevent the violence.
The Times petitioned the court to release records about Fuentes. This month Michael Levanas, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court, ordered the release of 696 pages of records.
The files offer a detailed view of the county’s dealings with Fuentes in the years leading up to the September slayings.
They document grief and anxiety that consumed Fuentes.
Fuentes was 5 when his father was slain. His mother died when he was 17, leaving him to feed and care for his three younger siblings, caseworkers wrote.
The records also show the challenges faced by caseworkers who struggled to pull out the truth during repeated visits to the home.
Beginning in 2010, anonymous callers contacted the county’s child abuse hotline alleging that the father was abusing the boys. The county Department of Children and Family Services verified only one accusation — the report of the 2010 belt beating — which led it to supervise the family for a year.
The Times reported last month that a court allowed Fuentes to end his supervision by caseworkers in 2011 without completing his court-ordered grief counseling. The department dismissed a new allegation of abuse last year without further intervention, despite caseworkers’ assessment that the children’s risk of abuse was “high.”
In 2008, Fuentes’ wife — the boys’ mother — died of a brain aneurysm. She had been “a very special person,” a baby sitter told caseworkers. Her death left Fuentes once again with three mouths to feed on his own.
By 2010, when caseworkers investigated the belt beating, Fuentes’ girlfriend, Josefina Barrales, agreed with their assessment that counseling was urgently needed because he had become “anxious, nervous and depressed.”
But Fuentes rarely spoke about his sadness, preferring to express remorse and pledge that he would never strike his children again.
“I made a mistake,” he told caseworkers.
Social workers expressed concern in their notes, however, about their ability to uncover the full extent of abuse within the family.
When they arrived to investigate the belt allegation, they found three young boys with limited ability to communicate about their lives. Luis had just started to read aloud in class and count to 200. Juan, then 4, was just beginning to draw and cut along a straight line. Alexander, then 3, was learning to dress himself.
A caseworker sat with Luis, who was initially reluctant to discuss the bruising reported by a teacher. The caseworker took time to discuss the difference between the truth and a lie, and asked him if he knew the difference.
Luis said he did. The records show that he continued: “Josefina told me that someone was coming to see me today and not to say anyone hit me.” He said his father beat him because “I think he got mad because I didn’t want to do my homework.”
When the caseworker asked if the other boys had been hit, Luis said that they had, sometimes by their father’s hand, other times with a broom, the records say.
“He has hit them maybe 2 or 4 or 100 times,” Luis told the social worker.
The report notes that Barrales denied coaching Luis. The caseworker told Barrales that dissuading a witness can be a crime, and the Department of Children and Family Services decided not to press the matter, records show.
Caseworkers, the records show, attempted to balance Fuentes’ work and home life against the court’s order that he participate in parenting classes, grief counseling and other services.
Fuentes, the report says, often left work at the end of a shift to find pandemonium at home. During one visit, caseworkers noted that the boys required constant monitoring, and one grabbed a knife to play with.
Fuentes did find time to go to parenting classes, but made it to only one grief counseling session, records show. Caseworkers marked that he was “in partial compliance,” and they successfully petitioned the court to close the case in late 2011.
Family Services recorded no further contact with the boys until someone called the child abuse hotline on April 9, 2014, to say that they were being abused.
Luis was 9 by then, and had grown to become an avid Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Cowboys fan. Under repeated questioning and follow-up visits with caseworkers and doctors, each family member denied any abuse in the home, the records show.
But Family Services noted that the relentless pressures on Fuentes appeared to be weighing on him heavily.
Fuentes told the caseworkers he put in long hours at the Farmer John meat processing plant.
“Father stated that it’s a very dangerous job as people get hurt all the time,” the records show. “Father pointed to a cut on his hand.”
He said he earned $2,000 a month, an income that placed him just above limits for CalWorks welfare benefits.
Eventually, Fuentes and his girlfriend parted ways. In the months before the boys were killed, they lived with their father in his car, receiving $204 a month in food stamps. CalWorks denied the father’s June 22 application for welfare benefits, case records show.
Following an internal review of the case, Family Services determined that no discipline was warranted for any caseworkers, spokesman Armand Montiel said.
Prosecutors charged Fuentes with capital murder. At a hearing, he appeared in a blue suicide prevention gown, sobbing. “Perdoname,” he said. Forgive me.
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Times staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.