The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday ordered officials in charge of child protection to examine shortcomings in the system in the wake of a 10-year-old boy’s death last week.
Anthony Avalos was found unresponsive at his family’s home in Lancaster on June 20 with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body. He died Thursday.
The Times reported Sunday that at least 16 calls had been made to the county’s child abuse hotline and to police before Anthony died. Callers alleged that he or his six siblings had been denied food and water, beaten, sexually abused, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, and forced to eat from the trash.
“This was an innocent child who suffered unspeakable abuse,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said at the board’s weekly meeting, describing the death as “murder.”
“You had teachers. You had family members. You had law enforcement come in contact,” Barger said. “And yet Anthony is at the morgue.”
Barger read a motion directing the county’s Office of Child Protection to work with the Department of Children and Family Services, the Sheriff’s Department and other agencies that may have had contact with Anthony’s family to review the case and identify any issues that impeded coordination of services.
The motion also asked for a report in 45 days on collaboration between child welfare and law enforcement officials, the effectiveness of medical “hubs” that serve foster children when they come into the system, and social worker staffing and supervision levels in Lancaster and Palmdale.
“There is no question that we have to do better,” Barger said before asking DCFS Director Bobby Cagle about current practices and policies at the department and its response to Anthony’s death.
“My personal mission is to try and prevent this kind of thing from happening,” said Cagle, who took over as head of the agency Dec. 1 after a long career in family and children’s services in Georgia.
A team of risk-management specialists is going over every report and contact made with Anthony’s family, “working day and night” to determine what happened, Cagle said. And the department is making sure that the other children removed from Anthony’s home after his death receive appropriate medical assessment and treatment, he added.
Cagle also said the department has increased staff in Lancaster and Palmdale in recent years but has not taken into full consideration the Antelope Valley’s remote location and lack of services.
Asked about the department’s policy for following up on cases that were once the subject of multiple calls and reports, Cagle said it depends on the circumstances. But most of the time, he said, “Once we leave a case we don’t go back to check on the child unless there is an absolute reason to do so.”
“The overriding concern is the safety of the child,” Cagle said, but he noted that the department must balance that safety with the rights of a family to be free of intervention by the government.
All of the supervisors mentioned the striking parallels between the deaths of Anthony and of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old who was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend in Palmdale in 2013 despite prior contact with child welfare officials and signs that he was being regularly and severely abused.
This month a judge sentenced Gabriel’s mother to life in prison and her boyfriend to death. Four social workers are facing criminal charges.
“When Gabriel happened, as horrific as it was and still is, I didn’t think something like that could happen again given the public outcry,” Barger said. “And it happened again. And when you look at the circumstances, you just have to wonder — you have to wonder why.”
Supervisors Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis both spoke of running for their county seats in part because of Gabriel’s death.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that one thing that particularly broke her heart was the fact that both Anthony and Gabriel may have been targeted for being gay.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Kuehl said. “I know that young people in my community every day find themselves at risk of violence.”
In 2013, the Board of Supervisors created a blue ribbon commission to figure out what went wrong in the handling of Gabriel’s case and how to avoid a similar breakdown in the future.
As a result of that report, the county created an Office of Child Protection to implement the commission’s recommendations and monitor reforms.
“Where have we come since that time?” Solis asked.
“Progress is being made,” responded Michael Nash, former presiding judge of L.A. County’s Juvenile Court and director of the Office of Child Protection. He cited as examples a plan to prevent children from entering foster care unnecessarily and new policies and training for investigating cases.
In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Cagle said he had requested court permission to share details of Anthony’s case immediately. The statement summarized the allegations of child abuse involving Anthony and how DCFS responded, but provided little new information beyond what The Times has reported.
It described 12 referrals to DCFS from 2013 to 2016 for a variety of allegations, including sexual, emotional and physical abuse as well as general neglect. It also confirmed that in interviews Anthony had described being beaten, locked up and not fed, and that Anthony had gone to live with relatives for a period of time while his family received counseling, medical and other services.
The department did not disclose whether social workers had made errors in the case.
Garrett Therolf 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.