Children keep dying. Why can’t L.A. County protect them?
The killings of three boys under oversight by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services — Noah Cuatro, Anthony Avalos and Gabriel Fernandez — sparked widespread outrage and demands for officials to do more to protect children under threat.
But their cases are just one aspect of a much larger issue that dates back decades. Officials have over and over vowed to improve the child welfare system only to have more children die. The agency has also been roiled by allegations of racial bias, poor decision-making and bureaucratic woes.
On Jan. 20, investigative reporters Garrett Therolf of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Matt Hamilton of The Times will discuss their stories about L.A.’s child welfare system. Joining the 7 p.m. virtual discussion is Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Holly J. Mitchell.
This Ask a Reporter forum will delve into Los Angeles County’s troubled system for protecting our most vulnerable children. Once again, the county’s child welfare agencies are undergoing major scrutiny and leadership changes, and Therolf and Hamilton will examine what’s ahead in 2022. Columnist Anita Chabria is the moderator.
When: Jan. 20, 7 p.m. Pacific.
Where: This free virtual event will live stream on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up on Eventbrite.
While the story of DCFS is complex, three heartbreaking cases of abuse and death have haunted the agency. Here are the stories on Noah, Anthony and Gabriel.
Sept. 4, 2019:A timeline on the death of Anthony Avalos.
More on the case here.
May 24, 2013: Gabriel Fernandez dies
Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old boy in Palmdale, dies two days after being severely beaten. Paramedics found Gabriel naked and not breathing, with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin.
May 29, 2013: Palmdale boy’s torture death triggers L.A. County probe
Officials launch an investigation into Los Angeles County’s handling of abuse complaints involving Gabriel. Four social workers are placed on desk duty pending possible disciplinary action. “We need to know where the breakdown was in the services recommended and why this child was not removed from those living conditions,” county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said at the time.
A Times review of confidential documents reveals that county Department of Children and Family Services left Gabriel in the care of his mother and his mother’s boyfriend despite six investigations into abuse allegations involving the mother over the previous decade.
June 25, 2013: Citizens commission to investigate Dept. of Family Services
In the wake of Gabriel’s death, the county Board of Supervisors votes to create a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the agency and propose reforms to its handling of child welfare cases.
July 30, 2013: Social workers involved in horrific child torture case fired
Two social workers and two supervisors in the county Department of Children and Family Services are fired over Gabriel’s death. Others “peripherally involved” in the case receive letters of warning or reprimand.
A Times review of more than 800 pages of grand jury testimony reveals a pattern of shocking abuse. Two of Gabriel’s siblings, both minors, testify that in the months leading up to his death, Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces and his own vomit; made to sleep in a locked cabinet without access to the bathroom; and subjected to regular beatings. Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend also called Gabriel gay, punished him when he played with dolls and forced him to wear girls’ clothes to school.
Prosecutors announce that the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office would seek the death penalty against Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, who were indicted by a grand jury on a charge of murder and a special circumstance of torture. Fernandez and Aguirre plead not guilty.
In an unusual turn in the case, four Los Angeles County social workers — Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt — were each charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records in connection with the 2012 death of Gabriel Fernandez.
A Times review of grand jury testimony, child welfare records and court documents showed that L.A. County sheriff’s deputies visited Gabriel Fernandez’s home multiple times in the months leading up to the child’s death. But the deputies found no signs of abuse and did not file paperwork that would have prompted specially trained detectives to delve further into the child’s well-being. None of the nine deputies involved with the case were criminally charged.
Isauro Aguirre is convicted of first-degree murder, also finding true a special allegation that the murder was committed with the infliction of torture. Jurors deliberated for roughly six hours before returning the verdict.
Pearl Fernandez, Gabriel’s mother, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. Her guilty plea avoided a trial, where prosecutors were expected to seek the death penalty just as they had with Isauro Aguirre. Fernandez’s defense team had said capital punishment wasn’t appropriate given Fernandez’s low IQ.
Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli sentenced Fernandez to life in prison without parole and Aguirre to be executed for Gabriel’s torture killing, abuse that the judge described as “horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil.”
A motion to dismiss child abuse and other charges against four social workers in the case involving Gabriel Fernandez is denied. Lomeli said the social workers had demonstrated “an improper regard for human life” and “a lack of vigilance” by neglecting to properly document the abuse.
The death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos from alleged abuse brings scrutiny to Hathaway Sycamores Child and Family Services, a contractor paid by the county for child welfare services. According to court documents reviewed by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and The Times, Barbara Dixon, a former Hathaway counselor who worked on both the Avalos and Fernandez cases, testified that her boss at Hathaway, Michael Bailey, did not want her to report suspected abuse after a 2013 visit to Gabriel’s home. Dixon also testified that her supervisors at Hathaway told her not to cooperate with police investigating Gabriel’s death.
A state audit of L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services concludes, “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.” In addition, the auditor’s office finds that the department’s social workers used “inaccurate” assessments to determine child risk and failed to conduct criminal background checks of those living in homes where children were placed.
In a Times profile of Deputy Dist. Atty. Jon Hatami, who successfully convicted Aguirre of Gabriel’s murder, the prosecutor opens up about how his own experience of child abuse shaped his handling of Gabriel’s case. “It’s my truth,” he says. “I know what it feels like to be powerless.”
In a 2-1 ruling, a state appeals court throws out charges of child abuse and falsifying public records against four former employees of the county Department of Children and Family Services involved in Gabriel’s case. “Although there may be consequences to social workers who fail to fulfill” their duties, the opinion reads, “the consequences do not include criminal liability for child abuse.”
Times staff writers Matt Hamilton, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Matt Brennan, Yvonne Villareal and Garrett Therolf of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley contributed to this report.
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