Frustration Grows With DCFS – Protests and Call for Criminal Investigation of Social Workers

Protests have been held in Lancaster, Palmdale and downtown Los Angeles against the Los Angeles county Department and Children and Family Services (DCFS). They have become so commonplace that employees, who at first stopped to see what was going on, now just casually walk by.

The protestors include the familiar faces of those who had been vocal voices over the last three years to bring attention to the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. Now, they are joined by the family members of another child: 10-year-old Anthony Avalos who, like Gabriel, is another case of a child sadistically abused and killed by “those who were supposed to protect him.”  

On Tuesday, July 17, with an attorney at their side, relatives of Avalos gathered with the protestors outside the DCFS headquarters on Shatto Place in downtown Los Angeles. 

The protestors place blame on the abusers and squarely at the office doors of DCFS “for another child who shouldn’t have been ignored, but here we are again. It’s now too late for more children than people realize,” one said.

They called for a criminal investigation of the social workers who were responsible for following up on the allegations of abuse that were called in to the agency.  As a parallel to the case of Gabriel Fernandez, there were calls to DCFS that went unheeded.   

“This is a case of flat-out, deliberate indifference toward the life of Anthony Avalos,’’ said the family’s attorney, Brian Claypool. “These records that we have today clearly demonstrate the social workers within L.A. County DCFS had massive red flags of a household replete with horror, a household where many of the kids were allegedly abused, not just Anthony Avalos. Because of this, we are calling for a criminal investigation. We would like social workers investigated for child abuse and criminal negligence.”

 Prosecutors contend in court papers that Anthony was severely tortured during the last five days of his life, alleging that his mother and her boyfriend whipped the boy, forced him to drink hot sauce, slammed him into furniture, dropped him on his head and denied medical attention.

 Claypool — with the boy’s father, Victor Avalos, and the boy’s aunt and uncle, Maria and David Barron — said he has obtained documents that are a “recipe for a criminal investigation,” noting that the records show 18 separate investigations into the household by DCFS over a four-year period beginning in 2013, and 88 alleged instances of child abuse, sexual abuse and child neglect.

“We have counted 15 substantiated allegations of child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse,” Claypool said. “Of those 15 substantiated, we have counted at least two, possibly three substantiated sex abuse claims. Now you tell me if that was not enough information for a well-trained, compassionate social worker to immediately remove and permanently remove not only Anthony Avalos, but all those (six other) kids in the house.”

Protestors maintain that there are countless children that fall between the wide cracks in the system, and it doesn’t appear to matter that calls to report suspected abuse are made to DCFS with subsequent visits by the agency; there are too many cases when they fail to remove them from their dangerous homes.  

Heather Barron 28, the mother of  Anthony, and her boyfriend Kareem Leiva, 32, were charged with murder and torture last week. The pair are accused of torturing the child in the days leading up to his June 21 death. They are scheduled to be arraigned on Aug. 3 in a Lancaster courtroom. 

Barron’s family has been split with some family members coming to her defense and going so far as to call her “a good mother.” But Anthony’s aunt Maria Barron has been very vocal, and has said that “prison is where Heather and Kareem belong.” 

She tearfully shared that she personally called to report suspected abuse as early as 2015 but action wasn’t taken. Anthony died on June 21 after he was taken to the hospital unconscious. His mother claimed he fell but the child had serious injuries all over his body that indicated a long history of abuse.

“Why has this happened again?” was the obvious question that protestors asked. 

About two years ago, the District Attorney’s office filed charges against two former social workers and their supervisors who are awaiting trial on charges of child abuse and falsifying records for allegedly failing to protect Gabriel Fernandez, of Palmdale, from deadly abuse by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.

A county Office of Child Protection was also established to transform the child welfare system in response to Gabriel’s death. 

Now county supervisors and others are questioning what were supposed to be “safeguards.” 

Last month, the county Board of Supervisors approved a motion by Supervisor Kathryn Barger calling for a thorough review of why Anthony wasn’t removed from his family home despite multiple reports to the DCFS. 

“You had teachers, you had family members, you had law enforcement come in contact. And yet, Anthony’s at the morgue,” Barger said.

“One has to wonder what it’s going to take to get the attention of not only the social workers, but the public in general, because I’m told that neighbors also were aware of what was taking place.”

In a statement released Tuesday, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said, “As our department grieves the senseless death of Anthony Avalos, my primary focus must be on the in-depth, top-to-bottom review now underway to determine exactly what happened and what needs to safeguard innocent lives going forward.   

“We are committed to doing all we can to cooperate with the sheriff’s department as their criminal investigation proceeds,” he said.

Meanwhile, in yet another case, Ana Estevez filed a lawsuit against DCFS.

Her son, nicknamed “Piqui,” was murdered by his father in April 2017. There was a large search for the child after his father was found disoriented in a South Pasadena park and claimed not to know where his son was after he failed to return his son to his mother. Her lawsuit holds DCFS as partially responsible for Piqui’s death and alleges that the agency was made aware that the boy’s father was abusive and threatened to harm him, but took no action.

“The system failed my son,” Estevez said.  

City News Serviced contributed to this article.