LOS ANGELES – At least a dozen social workers managed reports of abuse and neglect in Anthony Avalos’ family before the 10-year-old boy died in Lancaster, alleged at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, but a county report presented Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors could not say what might have been done differently to save him.
The review by the Office of Child Protection concluded that the Avalos case was very different from the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, another Antelope Valley boy, and involved frequent home visits, counseling for family members and many interviews with relatives, neighbors, law enforcement and school personnel.
“While the death of Anthony was horrible, heartbreaking, and apparently brutal; while it occurred in the Antelope Valley; and while there had been previous (Department of Children and Family Services) involvement with Anthony and his family, from a systemic perspective, this case is very dissimilar to the notorious and awful 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez,” the report states.
OCP Director Michael Nash told the board that one key difference was that DCFS was not monitoring the family at the time of Anthony’s death. Nash also said if Gabriel had been taken for one forensic exam — as Anthony was — the extent of his abuse would have been uncovered and he would likely have been saved.
Gabriel was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, who has been sentenced to death for the crime. Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for her role in the abuse.
In Anthony’s case, his 28-year-old mother, Heather Maxine Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, are charged with killing and torturing him in the days leading up to his June 21 death. They are jailed while awaiting arraignment in Lancaster.
The OCP report did not lay out DCFS failings in Gabriel’s case, but detailed a host of contacts and follow-up around reports of abuse and neglect of Anthony and his siblings.
“Social workers frequently visited the family home and conducted home evaluations. The children were regularly interviewed, frequently alone, and regularly had their bodies checked for signs of physical abuse. Numerous collateral witnesses were interviewed, including relatives, neighbors, service providers, school personnel, and law enforcement,” the report found.
The OCP report acknowledged lessons learned, but did not point to any one thing that might have been done differently to save Anthony. In fact, the report — and Nash — concluded that the question couldn’t be answered.
“The key question is whether or not Anthony might still be alive today if certain things had been done differently. That question cannot be answered, especially when considering the extent of DCFS involvement followed by 18 months of a lack of reporting from any source, mandated or otherwise,” the report states. “What is clear is that Anthony’s death did not occur while the family was being monitored by DCFS.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn pushed back on that conclusion.
“If we can’t point to something that we either did or didn’t do that could have saved Anthony’s life, then I think we’re going to have a tough time going forward,” Hahn said.
Barron was the first one to file a report in February 2013, going to the sheriff’s station to accuse her father of sexually abusing Anthony, an allegation substantiated by social workers who arranged for the boy to get counseling.
“The contradictions in how this mother conducted herself in this case are mind-boggling,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the Fifth District, including the Antelope Valley.
A dozen other allegations followed, with sources claiming abuse or neglect of Anthony or his siblings by Barron, Leiva or the fathers of two of the siblings. Reports of physical abuse were deemed to be unfounded or inconclusive, with one “evaluated out.” Some reports of general neglect were substantiated.
Barron voluntary completed domestic violence and parenting programs and a dependency court case was opened as a result of the allegations involving the father of a sibling.
Barron also gave birth to three more children between September 2014 and July 2017 and seven children ultimately lived in the home, according to the OCP.
From November 2016 until Barron called paramedics to her home on June 20, saying that Anthony had been injured in a fall, there were no calls to DCFS or law enforcement from teachers, doctors, neighbors, relatives or anyone else who knew Anthony, according to the report.
“The radio silence may or may not have been significant in this case,” Nash said.
Nash and his office recommended changes that should be made to the child welfare system, including enhanced monitoring for families who voluntarily agree to counseling and other programs; more training for social workers and law enforcement on how to interview kids; and better collaboration between social workers and law enforcement personnel.
“The whole process needs to be changed in how we link families to services” and when social workers decide to close a case and walk away from a family, Nash said.
He also called for more investigative training, saying that people who pursue a career in social work typically want to help families, “but we’re asking social workers to be detectives on top of this.”
Heavy caseloads also remain an issue and “have always affected the quality of work,” Nash said, calling for more resources.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle told the board that caseloads are down significantly countywide, but that further reductions are possible, particularly in the Antelope Valley.
In addition to making sure social workers aren’t juggling too much, Cagle said he wants to hire more supervisors.
Cagle told the board that Anthony’s death was weighing heavily on his department and said he was not waiting for various investigations — including a pending state audit — to be completed before implementing changes.
Barger characterized the Lancaster office of DCFS as “in turmoil” and questioned what more could be done.
“As much as we tried to protect this child, the services provided fell short,” Barger said.
The county is temporarily pulling resources from other offices to fill gaps in the Antelope Valley.
Pressed on the issue of what might have saved Anthony, Cagle told the board, “We have no known interventions that can be 100 percent effective, 100 percent of the time. We try our best, sometimes we make mistakes, but we have people that go out every single day and risk their own lives to try and save these children.”
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