Courtesy Photo

Images of memorial for Anthony Avalos


It took five long years to bring justice for the torture and murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

For those close to the case, the final sentencing earlier this month of Pearl Fernandez, the boy’s mother, and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre — who tortured and beat Gabriel to death — finally brought some closure.

Fernandez is behind bars for life. Her new permanent address is Chowchilla State Women’s Prison in Central California. Aguirre is on death row at San Quentin, where he can’t harm another child ever again.

The verdict and final sentences were described as “bittersweet,” by Sylmar resident Emily Carranza, a cousin of the tortured boy, who said she was able to take some comfort in knowing that Gabriel’s death had exposed serious problems at the Department of Children and Family Services and shined a much-needed light on the agency.

Since Gabriel’s death in 2013, Carranza with many others connected on a “Justice for Gabriel” Facebook page they utilized to share information while keeping a close watch on the case. Over the years, they rotated attending court and conferred with the District Attorney. Many who joined the online site were mothers who shared how much they were affected by what happened to Gabriel, and would soon find posts from around the globe that shared tragic stories of other children who were suffering abuse.

Three of the women actively following the Gabriel’s case traveled from Canada and Montana to join Carranza and others at the final sentencing of Fernandez and Aguirre. When sentencing was handed down, they offered their prayers to the sky to let Gabriel know that — at long last — justice had been served.

They planned to focus their attention next to keeping tabs on the upcoming trial of the social workers who failed to listen to Gabriel and his teacher, and neglected to remove Gabriel from his mother’s custody.

They took some comfort in believing that Gabriel’s death wouldn’t be in vain because, with so much media attention and public outrage, the county Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) was forced to change and another child wouldn’t die suffering the same unimaginable abuse. In fact, an Office of Child Protection was established to transform the child welfare system soon after Gabriel’s death.

But little more than two weeks after the sentencing of Fernandez and Aguirre was handed down, news broke on June 23 that another child, 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, suffered years of abuse and died from his injuries. 

Late Wednesday afternoon, police announced the arrest of his mother’s boyfriend, Kareem Leiva.  The child was living with his mother Heather Barron, and Leiva, who was reportedly a gang member of MS13.

This hit Carranza and Gabriel’s Justice supporters hard, bringing back the same roller coaster of emotions that begged the obvious question; “How could this happen again?”

Carranza said after just getting a bit of resolution, processing this news hasn’t been easy.

“This is heartbreaking, Another failure, I see no changes in the system of training [social] workers,” Carranza said.

“We find ourselves asking the same questions — why was Anthony left in a home of abuse and, again, social workers are at the center of questions. Why didn’t they remove him and the other children? Why was Anthony, like Gabriel, left in a home of horrors?”

The death and circumstances of Anthony Avalos are eerily similar to the torture and abuse that killed Gabriel. Even the locations of where the two boys lived aren’t far from each other. Gabriel was living in Palmdale and Anthony in Lancaster.

Anthony was found in his home mortally wounded with severe head injuries, cigarette burns covering his body. He could not be saved and died in a hospital.

Anthony’s aunt, Maria Barron, said that she began alerting DCFS of abuse of Anthony in 2015 but nothing was done.

She said she also alerted the police when she noticed bruises and other injuries that Anthony and his siblings told her were caused by the boyfriend. She said the children told her that Leiva locked them in small spaces where they had to urinate and defecate on the floor.

Although Leiva had a history that included a conviction in 2010 of domestic abuse, still no action was taken by DCFS to remove the boy from their custody.

The coroner’s office has placed a security hold on the case. There have still been no arrests made in this case. Meanwhile, the Avalos family is divided.

Anthony’s great-grand-mother, who didn’t offer her name, said that Anthony did suffer abuse but it was at the hands of his stepfather who sexually abused him.

 “She was a very good mother. That’s all bullcrap. Heather opened up the case when the stepfather was the one who did the sexual abuse,” the great-grandmother said.

Other family friends also defended Anthony’s mother and called the media “unfair.”

Calling the boy’s death a “senseless murder,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger this week called for a review of all county contacts with the boy’s family, seeking an answer as to why he was not removed from his home despite repeated complaints to DCFS that Anthony was being abused.

“The county is suffering a senseless murder of an innocent child, allegedly at the hands of someone inside the home, while law enforcement, social workers and family preservation workers all interacted with the family,” Barger said.

“We need to identify how our previous efforts to enhance and expand services and integrate county partners have succeeded, and determine where there are continual gaps and barriers.”

Barger’s motion asked for a close look at services provided in the Antelope Valley in particular.

School administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others called police or the child abuse hotline at least 16 times since 2013 to report child abuse in Anthony’s Lancaster home, according to sources who reviewed county documents in the case.

The callers reported that Anthony or his siblings were denied food and water, sexually abused, beaten and bruised, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, forced to fight each other, and forced to eat from the trash.

Carranza said the lift she had felt following the final sentencing in Gabriel’s case has come crashing down again.

“The more I learn about Anthony Avalos, the more similarities there are of Gabriel’s story and it all comes back again. I had to turn off my television and social media for two days to cope with Anthony’s story,” Carranza said.

Now those who communicate via the Facebook page Justice for Gabriel have started another Facebook page they had hoped would not be necessary. It’s called “Justice for Anthony Avalos.”

“Please show your support and love for Anthony and let’s continue to be his voice as we all were for Gabriel,” Carranza urged.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” Carranza said. “Like Gabriel, Anthony’s death could have been prevented. Five years ago, promises were made to change the way DCFS, DPS and law enforcement handled these cases.

She called for others to “stand up and demand answers.

How many children must die in order for real changes to come?”

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City News Service also contributed to this article.