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After 2 suspected homophobic killings, audit finds broader issues with L.A. child welfare

Family handout photos of Anthony Avalos, left, and Gabriel Fernandez. A long-awaited state audit of
Anthony Avalos, left, and Gabriel Fernandez are pictured in family photos. A state audit of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services, launched after the boys high-profile slayings, found major shortcomings that placed vulnerable children in harm’s way.
(Family handouts)

A long-awaited state audit of Los Angeles County’s troubled Department of Children and Family Services has uncovered shortcomings that often place vulnerable children in harm’s way.

The audit found that the department’s social workers didn’t initiate or complete investigations of neglect accurately or quickly enough, used “inaccurate” assessments to determine child risk and didn’t always conduct criminal background checks of those living in homes where children were placed.

“The department has allowed children to remain in unsafe and abusive situations for months longer than necessary because it did not start or complete investigations within required time frames,” the state auditor’s office concluded.

Although wide-ranging in scope, the audit was prompted by the high-profile slayings of two boys — Anthony Avalos and Gabriel Fernandez — who were both subjects of abuse investigations in L.A. County and, according to prosecutors, may have come out as gay.

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Investigators specifically reviewed whether the department had adequate protections in place for LGBTQ youth, who are disproportionately represented in the foster care system and who face additional trauma because of having been rejected by their families for their sexual orientation or gender expression.

Though the audit did find that the department is working to improve conditions for LGBTQ children and teens under its supervision, citing an internal county study from 2014 that indicated a need for improvement, investigators found far less progress in other areas.

RELATED: The Los Angeles Times’ investigation into the killing of Anthony Avalos »

For example, the department’s safety and risk assessments — used to gauge a child’s immediate safety and need for services — have often been late and inaccurate, making it difficult to mitigate risks to children’s safety, according to the audit. Investigators found several instances in which social workers submitted the assessments without having visited the child’s home.

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Social workers also did not consistently conduct required home inspections and criminal background checks before placing children with relatives. Despite budget increases that allowed the department to hire more social workers and reduce caseloads, department workers did not always conduct monthly visits to homes to assess the well-being of children on their caseload, according to the report.

Reunification assessments, which document caretakers’ behavioral problems and evaluate risk, were also not completed in a timely manner in all but one case the state auditors reviewed.

“Not completing these assessments properly could lead the department to inappropriately return a child to a parent or guardian,” the state auditor’s office concluded.

Issues with the speed and quality of investigations and the failure to conduct background checks before placing children have been long-running problems for the department. Those same deficiencies were brought to light in a report released by the state auditor in 2012.

In one case highlighted in the report, a social worker tried once — without success — to contact a family within a day of receiving a report of possible abuse and then waited 151 days to follow up.

“Once the department made renewed attempts, it removed multiple children from their mother’s care after discovering she had been abusing illegal drugs,” the audit states. “Throughout those five months, the department risked the health and safety of the children by leaving them in an unsafe situation.”

Bobby Cagle, the director of DCFS, said social workers are focused on improving the way they conduct safety assessments for children and families. Cagle also said the department hoped to hire more supervisors to help manage the more than 2,000 new caseworkers hired in recent years. Those supervisors are crucial for training and mentoring, but also for holding caseworkers accountable for meeting deadlines for case assessments.

Of the audit, he said, “We’ve welcomed it, we will make use of it and we will comply with the recommendations to make a better agency.”

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Hilda Solis, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, which oversees the department’s policy priorities and budget, said the department must work harder to train new caseworkers and seek to reduce their caseloads so they have more time to spend with families.

“Our residents deserve a child welfare system that ensures their safety, serves their unique needs in a culturally competent manner and provides them with opportunities to succeed,” Solis said in a written statement. “That is the standard of care that I expect of our county and child welfare system.”

She noted that the board recently approved plans for a new family treatment court for cases involving substance abuse. Supervisors this week also approved a motion calling for a new Office of Equity that would focus on racial disparities in the department and specifically address the needs of LGBTQ youths.

The treatment of LGBTQ youths was a catalyst for the investigation by the state. After the death of Anthony Avalos — a 10-year-old who had been the subject of 13 calls to the department — the California legislative audit committee last year approved a request for the investigation. Then-state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) made an emotional appeal.

In demanding the audit, legislators, citing reporting in The Times, noted that Anthony may have come out as gay before he was killed.

“As an openly gay man who had to endure bullying … using my home as a place to shield myself from that and having a welcoming environment where I felt protected was my only reprieve,” Lara said in August. “Seeing and hearing the grotesque and inhumane way these parents treated their children for being gay or being perceived as gay shocked me.”

Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, was arrested in 2018 and charged with murder, child abuse resulting in death and torture. Her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, faces the same charges. They have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for a pretrial hearing in July, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records.

In the Fernandez case, four social workers are facing criminal charges related to 8-year-old Gabriel’s death. A judge concluded that “red flags were everywhere” before Gabriel was killed by his mother and her boyfriend, and that the social workers mishandled evidence of escalating abuse and failed to file timely reports. Gabriel died in May 2013 after months of torture and abuse allegedly motivated by the boyfriend’s belief that the boy was gay, prosecutors say.

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Supervisor Janice Hahn said the audit revealed “disturbing gaps” in the department’s work, saying it’s unacceptable for caseworkers to “fudge” paperwork or miss deadlines in child welfare cases.

“It is up to us to protect these children, and the thought that we are not taking every precaution to ensure every child in danger is placed into a safe home is maddening,” she said in a written statement. “I appreciate that our social workers do difficult work, but we rely on their judgment to protect our children.”

The auditor’s office also found positive news, saying that “despite its problems, numerous indicators point to a department positioned to overcome its challenges.”

It noted that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has developed a long-term strategic plan to improve DCFS and that its overall staff turnover rate was lower than national averages. DCFS workers interviewed by auditors “were generally positive about their work environment.”

Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.


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