It was an emotional day that was a long time coming.
Maria Barron and other family members were in the packed courtroom Tuesday to read their impact statements and to urge the judge to impose the maximum sentence for the horrific murder and child abuse of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos.
They could barely get through their words as they shared their struggle — the pain they live with that has torn their family apart. They described how much they miss hearing Anthony’s infectious laugh, recalled how he liked to wear his Spiderman costume and how loving he was — defending and helping his siblings and cousins who were his playmates.
They directly addressed Anthony’s killers — addressing them as “the monsters, Heather and Kareem.” They told the pair how much they “hate” them and wished the worst for them and said they were no longer members of their family.
And one by one they urged the judge with a plea to impose the maximum sentence. They held each other as the judge sentenced Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Barron spoke to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol after she left the courtroom.
She was tearful and glad that it was over.
“Well, there’s relief, more than anything — I’m just relieved that I don’t have to see them again,” said Barron. “It’s been [nearly] five long years of having to come to court, seeing their faces and finally, it’s over and done with. Anthony’s going to get just the justice he deserves.”
She said it was hard listening to everybody’s impact statements and it continues to be especially hard on her children who for a time lived with him.
“It just broke me but I want to move on, close this chapter and start the healing process and become a better person and do what I can to help other kids just like Anthony.”
What is at the core for Barron and many others, who have rallied their concern, is that the death of Anthony followed the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, which led to a lengthy and widely publicized investigation that was to correct the agency and prevent other children from suffering abuse. The Fernandez case and hearings that followed exposed the profound bureaucracy of the agency, the attempts by teachers to report abuse that were ignored and social workers who said they were overburdened with too many cases. The Fernandez case was to put the agency on notice and correct the many problems at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Yet, what appeared to be a mirror of the Fernandez case was the torture and abuse of Anthony and then the subsequent death of Noah Cuatro, a 4 year old who is also believed to have been killed and abused by his parents. DCFS was notified about the abuse of all three children yet didn’t rescue them. Multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse.
“The system continues to fail children,” said Barron who saw the agency’s inadequacy firsthand and how hard it is to get the DCFS to properly respond. She, along with other family members of children Gabriel Fernandez and Noah Cuatro, who met the same fates, continue to ask why the agency that is supposed to protect children and remove them from unsafe homes continues to fail.
Barron said that she and her husband wanted Anthony and his siblings to live with them after learning of the abuse from them directly. It was Barron and her husband David, (brother of Anthony’s mother) who reported Heather and her boyfriend and called DCFS repeatedly after Anthony and his siblings told them they were being abused.
The children were removed and placed with Barron and were doing well with her family, but then after a short time, DCFS took them back to their mother which she said devastated them.
Barron said her husband went so far as to warn DCFS that something bad was going to happen, but their concerns were ignored and they were prevented from seeing Anthony and his siblings. Barron refused to allow them to see the children after she regained custody of them, she said.
“In 2014, we reported the abuse. And after we reported the abuse she got the kids back, she isolated us. We weren’t allowed to talk to the kids. We weren’t allowed to see the kids. And that was for three years and then three years after that. Then, we got the phone call, letting us know that Anthony was in the hospital and never again did I get to see my baby boy, you know.” said Barron.
“I honestly don’t believe that they’re [DCFS] in it for the kids. I don’t think any changes have happened since the death of all these kids and no drastic measures have been taken in order to stop parents from murdering their own children or [what happens in] these foster homes, you know, doing the same thing to other kids. Just in Cal City, foster parents killed two little boys, in fact,” said Barron.
She said it is still the tendency of the agency to believe the parents and to dismiss the children who say they are being abused.
“DCFS has yet to make drastic changes. Kids are still dying. Even after Anthony’s death, after Gabriel’s, there are still so many more kids that have fallen through the cracks and I hope that we can help make that change happen in the boys’ honor because they were supposed to be saved by DCFS and the system failed them. I think that one of my missions is that I feel like we need change. DCFS needs to advocate for the children and not for the parents.”
Barron said that the recent sentencing of Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva isn’t the end and she, with her “Warrior Family,” who came together to keep watch over the trial and support each other through the court process, will continue to work together.
What she doesn’t want is for people to become complacent.
“We want people to know that this happened and that, you know, we always have to be vigilant. And if you see something, say something, it just can’t end here. This can’t end with this verdict, you know. Change has to happen and people need to stand up for our kids.”
In Part 2 of the article — we will talk to the “Warrior Family” and through the tragic deaths of children they’ve organized online sites, held protests, and met with public officials to apply pressure and call attention to the plight of abused children.