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Opinion

Editorial: Child death cases are obviously tragic, but we need to let fact overrule emotion

Anthony Avalos, who was found dead last week. Sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call from his
Anthony Avalos, who was found dead last week.
(Family photo)

In announcing the arrest Wednesday of a suspect in the killing of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said that reports of the boy’s injuries were “grossly overstated” and that detectives did not find cigarette burns on his body, contrary to earlier reports. “What you’ve heard there is not accurate based on what our detectives have seen,” he said.

It’s tempting to respond, “So what? The young boy was killed, and that’s what matters.” And indeed, that is the essential issue. But how did it happen, and when, and what signals were missed in the months before, and by whom? These questions are central to understanding not only who bears criminal responsibility, but how policies and practices failed, if they did, and how to improve them. The facts matter, and should not be overruled by emotion.

An L.A. County official reportedly said Anthony “came out as gay” in the weeks before his death, and that remark has become a persistent line in news reports. It is important. LGBTQ kids are overrepresented among youth in foster care, in part because of rejection by their families. They often are the targets of violence by family members or even strangers when their sexual orientation is revealed. In the murder trial of Isauro Aguirre, the boyfriend of the mother of slain 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, homophobia emerged in testimony as one possible motivating factor in the 2013 killing. There are, at least on the surface, eerie parallels between the deaths of Gabriel and Anthony.

But so far, the publicly reported evidence that Anthony “came out” is sketchy. One Department of Children and Family Services official said Anthony “said he liked boys.” Another department official said the boy’s statement was that he liked boys as well as girls. Is it “coming out” for a 10-year-old to say he likes boys and girls? It’s not impossible. There may well be additional evidence that he “came out,” or that an adult in the house believed he did and responded violently, but no such information has yet been released.

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Much anger has been directed at the Department of Children and Family Services, whose social workers respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect. There have been calls for firing and for criminally prosecuting county personnel, and the calls are given added resonance by the impending criminal trial of social workers and their supervisors in the Gabriel Fernandez case.

It is certainly possible that county workers failed, or even that some might be held criminally liable. Yet the information released so far is that the 12 complaints of abuse and neglect of Anthony were received years ago and that workers responded to them; and that there were no such complaints received in the last two years. Complaints about general neglect were confirmed, as was an allegation of sexual abuse several years ago. Complaints about other forms of physical abuse were not. None of that disproves failure on the part of county workers. It’s too early. We don’t yet know, and likely will not for quite some time. The Board of Supervisors, understandably angry and frustrated, reasonably called for a status report in 45 days. Even then, not every question will be answered.

The case is agonizing. After the death of Gabriel, the county convened a blue-ribbon panel to study the child welfare system and make recommendations for improvements; it hired 2,600 additional child welfare workers to reduce caseload size; and it established an Office of Child Protection to increase accountability and improve coordination among agencies. There should have been no way a similar death could occur under similar circumstances, but here it is — same general part of the county, a boy of close to the same age, an accused boyfriend of an allegedly neglectful mother, assertions of homophobia.

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There have been calls for legislation, but to require what, exactly, that is not already required? In social media and in the news there have been demands for heads to roll, but whose, and for what reasons? It is exceedingly difficult, in the wake of the death of an innocent child, presumably at the hands of an adult, to take a breath and allow time to sort through the facts. But that — along with grief for the loss of life and determination not to permit yet another recurrence — is what is needed.

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