Long before 10-year-old Anthony Avalos died on Thursday with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body, law enforcement officers and child protective caseworkers documented years of severe abuse allegations, according to sources familiar with the case history.
The sources, who spoke on the condition on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, said that despite the history, the boy was never permanently removed from the home.
School administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others called police or the child abuse hotline at least 16 times since 2013 to report child abuse in the family’s Lancaster home, according to sources who reviewed county documents in the case.
The callers said Anthony or his six siblings were denied food and water, sexually abused, beaten and bruised, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, forced to fight each other, and forced to eat from the trash, the sources said.
Most of the allegations of abuse made by callers concerned Anthony. The callers made allegations against several family members, including his mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, according to the sources. The sexual abuse allegation was made against another family member who Barron and Leiva continued to use for child care even after being made aware of the accusation, the sources said.
Neither his mother nor her boyfriend has been charged with a crime related to Anthony’s death. Barron and Leiva did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call from his mother about 12:15 p.m. Wednesday and found the boy unresponsive inside his family’s apartment. Authorities said they were told the boy had “suffered injuries from a fall.” He died at a hospital Thursday morning, and investigators classified the death as “suspicious.” County officials removed seven other children from the home as the investigation continued.
Although many of the reports of the children’s alleged abuse came from professionals or eye witnesses, caseworkers who investigated the abuse allegations only marked some as “substantiated,” and they only briefly placed Anthony in the care of an aunt and uncle, the sources said. They then returned Anthony to his mother's home over his relatives’ protests, the aunt, Maria Barron, said in an interview.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services filed papers under state disclosure law saying Anthony's death likely resulted from child abuse.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle declined to be interviewed about Anthony’s case. His spokeswoman would not say if the department has identified any case management errors because it was too early in the investigation. She also declined to say if any workers have been placed on desk duty pending investigation, despite the department’s longstanding practice to disclose such decisions.
Maria Barron said in an interview that she started making calls to DCFS in 2015 when she noticed bruises and other injuries that the children told her were caused by Leiva. She said the children also reported Leiva locking them in small spaces where they had to urinate and defecate on the floor.
At one point, Maria Barron said she physically barred the children’s mother from retrieving them after a visit, and her husband called police in hopes that they would also become involved. But the children later recanted some of the stories of abuse after speaking to their mother, Maria Barron said. The caseworkers and police appeared to accept those retractions at face value, she said.
Anthony’s father, Victor Avalos, who lives in the Mexican state of Colima where he sells hot dogs, said Anthony was born when he and Barron were both teenagers. In the years since, he said he lived in despair as he watched police and caseworkers take no decisive action to remove Anthony from his mother’s care.
“I knew that he’s not getting attention. He’s not getting love. He’s not getting food,” Avalos, 29, said.
He said he begged Barron to allow Anthony to come live with him, but she refused.
“Anthony would say, ‘You know what, I really want to go with you,’” Avalos said, recalling their video calls. “It would break my heart, but I was so glad that he wanted to come out here with me.”
When Anthony's mother refused to relinquish him voluntarily, Avalos said he made sure that DCFS caseworkers had his number and address. Then he waited, expecting to hear from them as the evidence of his son’s peril mounted. The call never came, he said.
“I asked [Anthony], ‘How are you doing? How are they treating you?’ He would just put his head down,” he said. “Anthony was scared to talk.”
The department has the power to petition the court to place abused children with family in Mexico, but as a Mexican citizen, Avalos did not have the documentation necessary to come and retrieve Anthony on his own.
Instead, child protection caseworkers tried to work with Barron to improve her parenting, according to the sources.
Barron, 28, at least twice entered the department's “family maintenance” program, where she received parenting classes and other services meant to remove any safety risk to the children. She also came under the oversight of the courts. During this time, she and her children were assigned lawyers as efforts to rehabilitate her progressed, but the court oversight was not longlasting, the sources said.
The family maintenance program has come under criticism in recent years for keeping children with abusive parents while failing to carry out its mission to remove safety threats. In nearby Palmdale, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was killed in 2013 by his mother and her boyfriend after caseworkers placed the mother in the family maintenance program. Three weeks after her entry, and following a series of missed appointments, the department falsely declared her rehabilitated.
A spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department, which handled some of the police calls, declined to detail what actions the agency took in Anthony’s case.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Lancaster, also declined to be interviewed about the case. In a statement, she said: “Through our sorrow and anger, we resolve to continue working as a community to identify and implement effective strategies to prevent abuse, protect children, and save lives.”
When children die of abuse following DCFS oversight, a deep internal investigation is launched under the supervision of county lawyers, but the findings typically never reach the public. Instead they are reviewed by the five elected members of the county board of supervisors who tightly hold the information under attorney-client privilege.
Therolf is a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Common Sense News, a non-profit focused on child well-being.