Anthony Avalos came out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are now investigating whether homophobia played a role in the death of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy, a county official said.
Anthony was found mortally wounded at his home last week with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body.
Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, revealed in an interview Monday that Anthony “said he liked boys” but declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when.
Nichols said the criminal investigation of the deadly abuse is ongoing.
Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, said it would have taken great courage for Anthony to have announced he was gay in the home.
Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, have not been charged with any crimes related to Anthony’s death. DCFS has determined that Anthony probably died from child abuse. Neither Leiva or Barron responded to requests for comment.
The aunt said she began alerting 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. Leiva was convicted in 2010 of domestic abuse.
For the boy to have come out amid those circumstances “only reinforces how brave Anthony was,” Maria Barron said.
Heather Barron and Leiva were the subject of at least 16 calls since 2013 from school administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others to DCFS and police alleging child abuse, sources told The Times for an article Sunday.
At least 13 of those calls were received by DCFS and specifically mentioned Anthony as the alleged victim, Nichols said.
In an interview, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle confirmed The Times’ report on Sunday that 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 one another, and forced to eat from the trash.
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. County officials removed seven other children from the home as the investigation continued.
Cagle said that despite the years of severe abuse alleged in Anthony’s home, it was “premature” to say that Anthony’s case represented a failure of the child welfare system.
“That’s a very complex question. It’s much more than a black-and-white issue. There are many shades of gray,” Cagle said.
The director promised a deep investigation of any breakdowns and to share any case management errors with the public as they are discovered.
No caseworkers have been placed on desk duty or become the subject of disciplinary action in the case. Nichols said the department will disclose such moves if they occur as the internal review deepens.
“I want to be sure that we are being as fair to them as possible,” Cagle said. “If you are giving up on workers immediately, that only causes more turnover.”
Nichols said that his department’s caseworkers documented years ago that Leiva was allegedly a member of the MS-13 criminal gang, but that information was not classified by the workers as a safety threat necessitating Anthony’s removal from the home, and the department never moved to have him permanently removed.
“Just because someone has some affiliation [with MS-13], in and of itself would not have a conclusive effect,” Nichols said.
The five elected members of the county Board of Supervisors declined interview requests regarding the case.
In a statement, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Lancaster, said, “Our partners in child protection are collaborating with law enforcement who are conducting a thorough investigation to identify the circumstances surrounding this unspeakable crime.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis issued a statement that said, “We will be taking a very hard look at how this happened, take all corrective actions immediately, and provide strict and diligent oversight to ensure that the reforms we have started are carried out.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn said, “We failed Anthony. I hope to get answers in the coming days as to what went wrong.”
Times staff writer Nina Agrawal contributed to this report.
Therolf is a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Common Sense News, a nonprofit focused on child well-being.