Los Angeles County missed many chances to save Anthony Avalos

Anthony Avalos
Anthony Avalos: Los Angeles Times

In July 2018, ten-year-old Anthony Avalos arrived at the Emergency Room with fatal bleeding in his brain. His emaciated and battered body succumbed the next day to years of deprivation and abuse. For four years, the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had received 13 reports on suspected abuse of Anthony and his siblings. For part of that period, his family was actually under the supervision of DCFS.

Many commentators saw parallels between Anthony’s death and that of Gabriel Fernandez in 2013 in the same town of Palmdale, in the Antelope Valley section of Los Angeles County. Gabriel was tortured to death by his mother and stepfather after multiple reports to DCFS failed to result in his rescue from this lethal home.

But based on its review of the family’s case file, Los Angeles County’s Office of Child Protection (OCP) concluded that Anthony’s case was “very different” from Gabriel’s. OCP concluded that it could not say that Anthony might still be alive today if the agency had done things differently. In justifying this conclusion, OCP stressed that the family was not under DCFS supervision at the time of Anthony’s death and that it had been over a year since the last report was made to the child abuse hotline concerning the family.

But in his devastating article,  The horrific death of Anthony Avalos and the many missed chances to save him, investigative reporter Garrett Therolf shows that DCFS had many opportunities to save Anthony. It also reveals striking connections between Anthony’s case and Gabriel’s. The same private agency counselor had worked with both boys, and had been questioned in court about Gabriel. A caseworker who had been disciplined for his errors in the Fernandez case actually supervised the social worker who managed Anthony’s case.

Garrett Therolf was kind enough to share the DCFS case file with Child Welfare Monitor. In reviewing the file, we were struck by the many red flags that DCFS ignored and the crucial points where the agency could have intensified the surveillance of the family or removed the children to safety. In this post, we highlight our own observations from the case file, complemented by key information obtained from other sources (such as interviews and grand jury transcripts) by Therolf.

The First Calls: 2013 and 2014

Anthony Avalos first came to the attention of DCFS in February 2013, when he was only four years old and reported that his grandfather sexually abused him. The agency substantiated the abuse but did not set up any ongoing monitoring, relying on his mother, Heather Barron, to keep his grandfather away from him.

In May 2014 the family came to the attention of DCFS again when a caller alleged that Barron, who had four children at the time,  was  hitting the children with hoses and belts and locking them in their rooms for hours. An allegation of neglect (but not abuse) was substantiated.  Barron agreed to the opening of a voluntary case, which was open from May 20, 2014 to December 4, 2014. A social worker named Mark Millman was assigned to manage the case. 

Under DCFS Supervision: June-December 2014

In June, 2014 a PhD. psychologist who evaluated Barron concluded that she  “appeared to have poor parenting skills as shown by her lack of patience towards her two children that displayed energetic behavior….At this time…. the assessor believes that her capacity to provide suitable care for her children is severely limited by her poor parenting skills, poor judgment, and denial and lack of awareness of her mental health issues.”  The evaluator recommended a variety of services for Barron. She refused to participate in individual therapy–probably the most essential. But there is no indication that case manager Millman even read the report, let alone followed up to see if the services were provided or successfully completed. Barron did participate in in-home services to improve her parenting skills, which were provided by an agency called the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley. 

Once services got under way, reports from the provider were not encouraging. A July 2014 progress report from the Children’s Center indicated that Barron was “having a difficult time maintaining her composure when the children misbehave.” In its August 2014 report, the agency reported that Barron was overwhelmed. The agency case manager recommended therapy for Ms. Barron but she again refused saying she was not interested in talking about the past. 

On October 9, 2014, a counselor at the Children’s Center called the hotline with concerns about the family.  The counselor had tried to discuss her concerns with Millman but he seemed to “blow it off.”  She reported that Barron, who had recently given birth to a fifth child, was “ very aggressive and angry and showed no nurturing to any of her children, even the infant.” She reported that she observed Barron yanking one child by the arm, yanking her daughter’s hair while brushing it, and calling the children names like “punk” and “bitch.” 

The social worker assigned to investigate the new allegations was not concerned.  He observed  that Barron and her children were ”interacting positively” and “that mother and children had secure attachment as seen by their interaction.” Barron’s admission that she hit the children with a belt and used hot sauce to punish them for talking back did not seem to bother him.  It appears that he was influenced heavily by Millman, who expressed no concern for the family. He reported that Ms. Barron “has her hands full and is doing her best….…She does cuss and yell but [is] doing all she can to provide appropriate care.”

The automated risk assessment performed as part of every investigation showed a high risk of abuse and neglect and recommended promotion to a court case. The investigator overrode this recommendation,  stating that the children were already involved in a voluntary case and getting services. And somehow, despite the mother’s own admission, the investigator closed the referral as “inconclusive” for physical abuse, as well as emotional abuse and general neglect.

Another Children’s Center therapist called DCFS on November 5, 2014, alleging she overheard one child say “She’s bad because she whips our ass.” The caller said that Barron continued to get frustrated easily. She quoted Barron as telling one of the children, ‘Don’t think, because she is here, I won’t whip your ass.’” This referral was “evaluated out” with no explanation.

Case Closed: December 2014

The voluntary case was closed on December 4, 2014 with the following comments: “The mother has been compliant with services and receptive to outside resources. Although the family has received two new referrals, the allegations were assessed unfounded/ inconclusive. Mother has agreed to continuing counseling for the children.” The agency arranged for the family to receive this counseling through a new agency,  Hathaway Sycamores Counseling.  There  was no indication that the mother had made any progress in addressing her parenting issues.  Nor was there a rationale given for directing the counseling toward the children rather than the mother.

Hathaway-Sycamores was the same agency that worked with Gabriel Fernandez, as mentioned above. As Therolf reveals, Anthony was even assigned to the same counselor, Barbara Dixon, who worked with Gabriel. Dixon testified in court that she had observed extensive injuries to Gabriel but did not report them to the hotline, despite being a mandatory reporter. The fact that she still had her job is mind-boggling. According to Therolf, “her case notes show that she counseled [Gabriel] to listen to his mother more attentively and to finish his homework.”

Kareen Leiva Enters the Picture: 2015

As Therolf describes, Barron met Kareem Leiva in 2015 and began a relationship that would last several years and result in Barron’s seventh child. Within months, the father of Anthony’s two-year-old brother reported to police that Leiva was abusing his son. There was no DCFS investigation but DCFS did open a court case involving that child and his parents, resulting in regular visits to the home by a social worker, Mindy Wrasse.

On June 12, 2015, the same father went to the police again after an agency-supervised visit with his son, reporting that his son had bruises on his arm and face. The social worker observing the visit had confirmed the bruising and reported that the child repeatedly said “Mommy is mean” during the visit. The father reported that the child seemed to have bruises at every visit. Ms. Barron reported the two-year-old fell in the shower, and the toddler reportedly confirmed the report. A two-year-old’s ability to confirm this verbally–and to take a shower on his own–shows suspicious precocity for his age. Despite the other siblings giving two different accounts of the bruising, the referral was ruled unfounded on the grounds that all of the children had similar stories. Additionally, the risk of maltreatment was found to be high and the recommendation was to promote to a case. But this recommendation was overriden because there was already an open case involving the two-year-old and his mother. That case closed in October 2016, leaving no DCFS personnel in contact with the family.

The Children Beg for Help: September 2015

On September 18, 2015, the hotline received a call, revealed by Therolf to be from the principal of Anthony’s school, recounting disturbing reports by Anthony of his treatment at home. A similar call came in from a sheriff’s deputy the next day. According to Therolf’s investigation, the children were visiting their uncle, David Barron, and told him about the horrific treatment they received from Barron and her boyfriend, Karim Leiva. David Barron refused to allow his sister to pick up the children and called the police instead. Anthony and his two oldest siblings described to the deputy who responded a litany of horrific punishments by Barron and Leiva.  They reported Barron made them. squat against the wall for long periods of time, a torture she called the “Captain’s Chair.” They also described beatings,  food deprivation, being locked in their rooms, and Leiva’s hanging Anthony’s brother from the stairs.  

When the DCFS investigator met with Anthony, he told her  “Heather is my old mom. This is my new house. I am part of the Barron family now. I’m never going to see Heather again. She locks us up in our rooms and makes us starving.”

But sadly, the agency that was responsible for Anthony’s safety did not allow him to stay in his safe “new home.”  The investigator spoke with three staff members of Hathaway-Sycamores, the agency providing home-based services to the mother. The three reported that they were “constantly in the home” and that the mother did not hit the children.  They said the children did not seem frightened, never talked of abuse, and there were no locks on the doors. The contrast with the reports of the Children’s Center a year earlier is striking. Given what came out after Anthony’s death, it is clear that the providers from the Children’s Center were much more discerning. Or perhaps Hathaway-Sycamores was in the grips of an ideology that values family preservation over child safety–a belief system that has led to many other children being abandoned to a horrible fate. In any case, it is incredible that DCFS was still using this agency after its role in Gabriel’s death.

Heartbreakingly, Ms. Barron was allowed to take the children home from her brother’s house. Not surprisingly, they recanted all the allegations once deprived of the protection of their aunt and uncle. Instead, they said their aunt and uncle told them to make these allegations. The wholesale retraction is suspicious because of the similarity and unusual nature of the allegations and the young age of the children, as well as the number of previous reports of abuse. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the children may have been frightened into recanting their allegations. But the investigator decided that the aunt and uncle were manipulating the children and had instigated the allegations. (Therolf reports that she was new to the job and testified in court that she was unaware that survivors of abuse often retract their accounts.). The allegations were found to be “inconclusive “and the referral was closed with a disposition of “situation stabilized.” 

One last chance of rescue missed: April 2016

 On April 28, 2016, DCFS received another report, which Therolf learned came from a domestic violence center staffer who was working with Barron. Two of Anthony’s brothers had bruises on their faces. Barron said they had been in a fight, but the boys told the reporter that Karim Leiva made them fight each other. They also reported being locked in their rooms and deprived of food for long periods of time. Barron stated that Leiva had not been in the home since the previous September. In interviews with the investigator, Anthony, his sister, and the five year-old brother all denied the allegations. Anthony and his sister denied that Leiva was in the house or even that they knew him–a denial which should have raised serious concerns to the investigator. Wrasse, the social worker who was monitoring the open case involving Anthony’s brother, said the children definitely knew who Leiva was–and she thought he was coming regularly to the house. The investigator of the previous report also declared definitely that the children knew Leiva.

Despite all these inconsistencies, the allegations were all judged “unfounded” or “inconclusive,” and the disposition was “situation stabilized.” The risk assessment showed a high risk of abuse or neglect and a recommendation to “promote” the case. But the recommendation was disregarded because there was already a social worker on the scene–the same worker who was sure Leiva was coming into the home regularly. Her involvement ended in October 16, and then the children were totally on their own.

There were no more allegations until it was too late for Anthony. At some point, Ms. Barron cut ties with her brother and sister-in–law and moved Anthony to a school that did not know his history. Nobody was left to protect him. It is nevertheless surprising that no  reports came from the children’s schools–a fact that deserves further investigation. According to Therolf, Anthony’s teacher noticed that he was “often nervous about something.” Such nervousness is not normal and should have triggered a response. But that is an issue for another post.

June 2018: Anthony’s suffering ends

Anthony’s fate was sealed when he told his his mother that he liked boys and girls. Leiva overheard this conversation.  The following night, his siblings later reported, Leiva picked up Anthony by his feet and slammed his head on the floor repeatedly. The next morning, Barron called 911, saying Anthony  had fallen. He was taken to the hospital and died the next day.

Anthony’s siblings initially denied any abuse, but as soon as they were questioned by an expert forensic interviewer, they revealed all the horrors that were occurring in the home. As punishment for minor transgressions, they were made to kneel on rice with weights in their hands, were kept awake all night (with water thrown into their faces by Barron or Leiva if they fell asleep), and were whipped with a belt or extension cord on the buttocks or soles of their feet. Anthony was singled out of special punishment. Leiva would pick him up by the feet and slam him on the floor head-first, as he did the night before Anthony died. By dying, Anthony saved his siblings from this nightmare home. They were removed from the home Barron and Leiva , who have been charged with first-degree murder for Anthony’s death.

DCFS had many chances to save Anthony but it wasted them all. This gifted, sensitive, and loving child was condemned to years of suffering ending only with his death. OCP was set up to protect children in the wake of Gabriel Fernandez’s death. It’s sad that this office ended up basically whitewashing Anthony’s. Now we are waiting for their report on why four-year-old Noah Cuatro was killed when DCFS disregarded an order to remove him from his home. Based on the Avalos report, the chances of a thorough investigation by OCP are slim.