LOS ANGELES — Anthony Avalos was the fastest runner in his fourth-grade class at El Dorado Elementary School in Lancaster.
He earned a place on the honor roll, and his teacher, Harmony Bell, noticed an uncommon emotional maturity for a boy his age. He often collected his thoughts before speaking, asking Bell if he could step out of the room and take a few deep breaths.
When a new student joined the class, he asked to move to a neighboring seat, hoping to be the friend the newcomer needed.
Yet Bell saw that Anthony was often nervous about something. He held his Bible tightly throughout the day, once quaking with tears when it fell to the floor.
Anthony would never return to school after classes ended last year. The next month, the 10-year-old arrived at a hospital emergency room with fatal bleeding in his skull.
His body showed signs of prolonged abuse. His skin was bruised and burned from head to toe. His once-healthy frame had wasted to skin and bones. Andranik Madikians, one of the physicians at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital who tried to save Anthony, recalled looking down at the boy and saying, “Oh, my God. How does this happen?”
Anthony had been under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services sporadically over a four-year period beginning in 2013 and ending in 2017 — more than a year before his death.
During that period, at least 13 calls were made by teachers, police, counselors and relatives to the child abuse hotline about Anthony’s welfare.
But child protective workers and others tasked with protecting Anthony missed numerous warnings and opportunities to intervene before his death, according to dozens of interviews and a review of court records, documents from DCFS and records of outside agencies hired by the county to help Anthony and his family.
Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, have been charged with first-degree murder in the boy’s torture death. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if they are convicted. Both have pleaded not guilty, and Anthony’s siblings have been removed from the home. The county’s child welfare agency has faced scrutiny after a series of high-profile child abuse cases in recent years, including the suspicious death in July of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro in Palmdale. Case workers had left Noah with his family despite a court order to remove him
Anthony’s case struck many people as having similarities to the 2013 death of another Palmdale boy, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, whose mother and her boyfriend were convicted of his torture murder.
In the wake of Anthony’s death, the county issued a report saying the circumstances, while “horrible, heartbreaking and apparently brutal,” were “very dissimilar” to Gabriel’s death.
But DCFS and grand jury records and interviews show striking similarities in the two deaths that occurred within a 15-minute drive in the Antelope Valley. In both cases, workers carried out superficial investigations and didn’t always follow proper protocols. The grand jury transcripts in the Avalos case were unsealed in December after The Times petitioned in court to obtain the records.
An outside counselor contracted by the county to provide services for Anthony’s family had previously been questioned about her work in the Fernandez case, and a DCFS caseworker supervising the agency’s contact with Anthony’s family had been disciplined for missteps in the Fernandez case, the review by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and The Times found.
Four other county social workers accused of mishandling abuse allegations in Gabriel’s case are scheduled to go to trial on charges of felony child abuse and falsifying records. If convicted, they would be among the few child protective services workers in the nation to face prison for failing a child on their watch. They have denied wrongdoing.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle has said no workers in Anthony’s case have been disciplined. None of the caseworkers mentioned in the records returned messages seeking comment for this story.
Members of Anthony’s family, though, asked the district attorney to review the workers’ actions.
“I know that he was brave,” Anthony’s aunt Maria Barron said of her nephew. “He has always been brave. Because of him, his siblings are finally free.”
FEBRUARY 2013 TO FEBRUARY 2015: MISSED WARNINGS
Anthony’s parents, Heather Barron and Victor Avalos, were still teenagers when Anthony was born. Avalos left for Mexico soon after, seeing his son grow up through occasional video chats but never again in person. Anthony’s mother raised the family with earnings from a part-time job at Subway and $793 in monthly welfare benefits, according to DCFS records.
In family photos, Anthony usually has a wide smile, holding a report card from school, wearing a blue dinosaur T-shirt or with his head held high in a vest and striped tie. In others, though, he looks pensively at the camera.
His travails began early. Anthony was only 4 when his mother brought him to a health clinic after he said that someone close to the family sexually molested him. The visit resulted in the first of many calls to the child abuse hotline.
The DCFS records show that investigators concluded the abuse had occurred but they did not set up ongoing supervision or counseling after assurances from Anthony’s mother that she would find him help and keep him away from the alleged abuser.
After he turned 6, his aunt Crystal Diuguid told her therapist that Anthony’s mother was beating him and locking him in a room with no access to food or a bathroom. The therapist called the hotline to say what she’d heard.
Anthony verified the account to a caseworker who interviewed him at school. Further interviews revealed that his mother had not gotten him counseling and that Anthony was acting sexually inappropriately with another child, according to DCFS records.
Such behavior is not uncommon with victims of sexual abuse, experts have found. DCFS workers wrote that Anthony’s mother did not seek professional help for Anthony and that his siblings told them that she beat him. Caseworkers believed there was neglect in the home and referred the family to the department’s Voluntary Family Maintenance program. Under the program, children can stay with their families while they work to resolve issues underlying the abuse.
The program is designed for low-risk cases as a means to reduce the number of children in foster care. There is often no judicial oversight or an attorney to represent the child’s best interests.
But internal reviews showed that caseworkers placed children, including Anthony, into the program even after the department’s risk-scoring tool evaluated them as being at “high” risk of abuse.
Gabriel Fernandez had also been in the program despite a risk rating of “very high.”
Caseworkers did not remove him from his home even after he wrote a suicide note, appeared in school with wounds from BB pellets shot across his face and told his teacher that his mother abused him, according to records.
One of the case workers assigned to Anthony was Matthew Mansfield, a veteran DCFS supervisor who also played a role in Gabriel’s placement in the voluntary program. He was later “disciplined” for the move following an internal inquiry, according to grand jury transcripts.
In Anthony’s case, Mansfield and colleague Mark Millman brought in counselors from the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley to provide services for the children and their mother. Heather Barron was then age 24 with four children and another one on the way.
“Based solely on the information provided by Ms. Barron, 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,” counselor Luis Ramirez wrote in June 2014. Barron’s specific mental health diagnosis is redacted in the records.
Wendy Wright, another counselor at the Children’s Center who spent significant time with Anthony and his mother, called the child abuse hotline that October to report that Barron grabbed one of Anthony’s siblings violently and dragged him across the room, consistently talked about her children in derogatory terms and displayed “nothing but anger toward those children.” Wright told the hotline operator that Millman was slow to respond to her phone calls and did not seem to take action when she finally reached him.
Shane Bulkley, another DCFS worker who was assigned to investigate Wright’s report, wrote in his notes that Barron cursed, yelled and acknowledged hitting the children with a belt. Bulkley quoted Millman as saying, “given the children and their age and their behavior, she is doing all she can.”
Millman and Bulkley declined to comment.
Then in November 2014, another therapist at the Children’s Center, Crystal Gee, called the child abuse hotline to report that one of the children told her, “Mommy whoops our asses.”
Millman followed up with her in a brief conversation, Gee said.
A software program the department used to score the children’s risk of being abused again indicated the likelihood was “high” and recommended increased supervision. Bulkley and his supervisor overruled the recommendation and closed the investigation, saying they did not have evidence to substantiate the allegations
At the close of 2014, Millman and his supervisor, Mansfield, took the Children’s Center off the case and enlisted a new agency, Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, which had provided similar services to Gabriel Fernandez through its counselor, Barbara Dixon. The files do not address why the switch was made. Gee would later testify to a grand jury that she considered her removal, and its timing, odd.
Dixon would later testify about her role in the Fernandez case before Gabriel’s death. In 2017, she told the court in the criminal case against Gabriel’s caseworkers that she witnessed extensive injuries but withheld the information from the child abuse hotline, despite state law requiring her to report all suspected abuse.
Dixon was given immunity to testify.
After Dixon was assigned to Anthony’s case, the focus of her counseling to reduce the abuse in the family was directed at Anthony, not his mother. Her case notes show that she counseled him to listen to his mother more attentively and to finish his homework.
Her notes, spanning about a one-year period from February 2015 to January 2016 when Anthony was ages 6 and 7, depicted the boy as prone to “whining,” “crying” and “tantrums” that she said made parenting him difficult.
Some of Dixon’s notes were cut and pasted from one session to the next, and they did not mention the new allegations of abuse that arrived at the child abuse hotline during the time she worked with the family.
Dixon and her attorney declined to comment.
APRIL 2015 TO JANUARY 2017: INTERNAL DEBATES
Heather’s brother, David Barron, was the first person in the family to meet Kareem Leiva, a co-worker at a Santa Clarita shipping facility. In 2015, David introduced Leiva to his sister Heather, and the two began a relationship that would span years and eventually produce her seventh child. As the relationship progressed, Heather told caseworkers that she became the victim of domestic violence.
An attorney for Leiva declined to comment for this article.
Within months of their introduction, the father of one of Heather’s younger children told police that Leiva was abusing his son. A sheriff’s deputy interviewed the boy, then 2, who told him that Leiva had violently grabbed him by the ear, leaving it bruised and cut. The deputy wrote that he saw the wounds himself.
But when Sheriff’s Det. Chris Wyatt got the report, he made no attempt to find Leiva, recommended no charges and ended the investigation, according to his later grand jury testimony.
DCFS workers also did not locate and interview Leiva at any point over the three years they investigated the family, even though they suspected he was at the home regularly on nights and weekends, the case notes show.
They also did not follow the department’s rules requiring them to contact Leiva’s other children or their mothers. If they had — or if they had pulled court records — they would have seen that two other women had restraining orders against him after they separately told judges that Leiva beat them with their children present.
DCFS opened a case in dependency court for the sibling — but not for Anthony and the other children in the home.
Soon thereafter, one of the assigned DCFS caseworkers, Anna Sciortino, saw “visible marks and bruises” on the sibling’s face and left arm.
Sciortino told the child abuse hotline that she doubted the abuse claim but wanted it recorded “to cover our butts.”
Barron and the boy told her the injuries occurred when he fell in the shower. Caseworkers deemed the story plausible and marked the father’s allegation “unfounded.”
Sciortino later acknowledged that she hadn’t reviewed her department’s files on earlier abuse complaints involving Anthony and his siblings.
DCFS guidelines nevertheless required the allegation to be sent to the police for a criminal investigation. The assignment went to Sheriff’s Deputy Billy Cox, who had been disciplined in the past for failing to properly investigate an unrelated child abuse allegation, according to his testimony in court.
Cox also testified that he never contacted Barron or Leiva.
“It was routine and common practice,” he said, “that if a referral was called in by a social worker, that we basically rubber-stamped it, so to speak, and sent it through.”
By September 2015, Anthony was enrolled at Lincoln Elementary School in Lancaster. In talking with Anthony, Vice Principal Gia Greaux had become increasingly dismayed.
He told Greaux that his mother beat him and locked him in a room with no access to food, water and the bathroom, according to DCFS records. He also described “the captain’s chair,” a form of discipline that required Anthony to hold a squatted position for a long period of time with his arms outstretched. She called the child abuse hotline on Sept. 18. Around the same time, Anthony’s uncle, David Barron heard the same alarming stories from the children during a visit.
They told him about being locked in a room, and they said Leiva also ordered the captain’s chair punishment. Additionally, the children said that Leiva whipped their faces and legs with a belt and dangled Anthony’s younger half brother upside down from a staircase, according to hotline calls and DCFS records.
When Heather came to pick up her children, David and his wife physically blocked her from taking them and called 911. Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Gellardo responded and called the child abuse hotline to report what had happened.
“They seemed pretty shaken up when I talked to them about it,” Gellardo told the hotline worker on the recorded line, adding his recommendation that the children not go home with their mother.
The next day, David called the hotline himself.
The children, he said, confided that they had been locked in a room so long that they urinated and defecated on themselves. When Leiva got angry, they said, he threw dirty diapers at them, slammed them into walls and dragged one of Anthony’s half brothers by the ear, leaving it scabbed and bruised.
The children were so hungry that they hoarded food, David added. When asked how long this had been happening, the children could be heard in the background responding, “A thousand weeks.”
David told the hotline worker that Anthony’s mother “is cutting herself and saying that she hates life. … I have pictures of her slitting her wrists and saying that she wants to die.”
He also told the hotline worker that Leiva was a member of the MS-13 gang and that he was afraid of what he would do next. Two days later, DCFS caseworker Ikea Vernon met with Anthony at his aunt and uncle’s home. He repeated the account of abuse.
“Heather is my old mom. This is my new house. I am part of the Barron family now,” he told Vernon, according to her notes. “I’m never going to see Heather again. She locks us up in our rooms and makes us starving.” Vernon then called Dixon and two other Hathaway-Sycamores counselors who had been working in the home for seven months. They were supportive of Heather Barron’s parenting during the discussion. “Each service provider reported that they have never heard anything from the children about abuse and neglect,” Vernon wrote.
Vernon had recently joined the department. Her notes indicate that she had been unwilling to draw a conclusion about abuse based solely on what the children told her.
When David and Maria Barron showed up at the DCFS office for answers about the investigation, Vernon turned them away and incorrectly told them they could get information only from Anthony’s mother, according to the case notes. The couple left unaware that they could have filed a formal petition to ask the court to intervene.
Heather Barron still had parental rights to the children and after she brought them home in the last week of September, Vernon met with Anthony at Lincoln Elementary. He said his mother was “starting to be nice” and “does a new thing where she does not lock the bedroom door anymore,” according to DCFS notes.
A month later, Anthony and his siblings recanted their allegations of abuse.
Wyatt, the sheriff’s detective reviewing the latest allegations, closed his investigation after one failed attempt to reach Leiva, according to Wyatt’s court testimony. He also never talked to Gellardo, the deputy who called the child abuse hotline.
In December 2015, Vernon marked the allegations from Greaux, Gellardo and David Barron as “inconclusive.” She also used a computer system to score the family’s risk of abuse and neglect, and it once again rated it “high” and recommended a greater level of intervention. Vernon and her supervisor, however, decided against any further action.
In later testimony before the grand jury that indicted Heather Barron and Leiva for murder, Vernon said her decision relied on the children recanting their prior claims of abuse. She testified that she was unaware that victims of abuse often retract their accounts.
“At the conclusion of my investigation, the situation was stabilized because the children had recanted their stories,” Vernon said.
Dixon and Hathaway-Sycamores ended their work with the family the next month.
Hathaway-Sycamores’ chief executive, Debbie Manners, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Later, Mildred Blue, a teacher providing services to Barron at a domestic violence center, reported to the child abuse hotline in April 2016 that the children arrived with bruises and said that Leiva had forced them to fight each other at home. They also appeared hungry. One ate out of the trash, she said.
The children denied the allegation when interviewed by DCFS caseworkers, who did not try to reach Leiva at Barron’s home and decided there was no need for follow-up.
Cox, the sheriff’s investigator, also received a report of Blue’s hotline call. He too decided not to follow up, according to his testimony. The department requires detectives to conduct independent investigations of child abuse and not rely solely on DCFS’ reports, even if DCFS says it’s unfounded.
Near the end of 2016, at least one more call to the child abuse hotline arrived regarding Anthony’s family, but details in the department file are scant. Caseworkers marked it “unfounded.”
Around this time, Heather Barron cut ties with her brother, sister, sister-in-law and the educators who had once reported abuse. She moved Anthony to El Dorado Elementary, where his history was unknown.
There, he got to know his new fourth-grade teacher, Harmony Bell, and on the last day of school he wrote her a letter.
“Dear Mrs. Bell, Thank you for teaching me everything you could it was such a blessing to meet you. I just hope that when I’m going to 6th that you can come to New Vista so I can see you still. I hope that you can come to my high school, middle school and college. That way we will see each other for school years without a problem because how close we are (and) how we are best buddys/friends. … I just want to stay with you forever but i can’t I just hope you have a good rest of your life because you already know that I’m going to have a good life. Love Anthony Avalos your friend.”
JUNE 2018: THE TRUTH COMES TOO LATE
The alleged final series of events began on June 18, when Heather Barron said Anthony confided to her that he liked boys, according to DCFS records. She told a DCFS caseworker that Leiva overheard the conversation.
The following night, Leiva allegedly dropped Anthony repeatedly on his head, according to grand jury transcripts.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call from Heather Barron about 12:15 p.m. June 20, 2018, and found Anthony inside the family’s apartment.
Authorities said they were told the boy had “suffered injuries from a fall.” Paramedics took him to the hospital in grave condition.
Maria Barron, Anthony’s aunt and David’s wife, learned of Anthony’s condition and went to the hospital, where she found Heather in the hallway, she said in an interview.
When Heather hesitated to let her see her nephew, Maria crouched at her feet, on her hands and knees on the linoleum floor, to plead with her to allow her to see the boy.
Through tears, she told Heather she was sorry for reporting the abuse allegations — anything to win her way in.
When Heather relented, Maria found Anthony unconscious and breathing on a ventilator. His lifeless face was held by a large yellow neck brace. Sensors were taped around his skull, recording his diminished brain activity.
He was 4 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 77 pounds.
He died hours later on June 21.
County officials removed the other children from the home as the investigation continued.
OCTOBER 2018: LINGERING ANGER AND QUESTIONS
Over the next few months, the true horror of what happened to Anthony and his siblings finally came out.
A grand jury heard evidence in Anthony’s case in October. His teacher, Harmony Bell, testified that Anthony had a “mind-blowing” positivity, according to the unsealed transcript. In addition to the letter, she said he often drew pictures for her and her daughters.
Anthony’s uncle, David, said in an interview that he loved playing football and fishing at Apollo Park and the aqueduct in Quartz Hill. To help earn the fishing trips, David said, Anthony excelled at school. He told his uncle that he didn’t talk when he wasn’t supposed to, didn’t roughhouse, that he helped pick up things from the floor and helped the teacher pass out papers.
In the months since Anthony’s death, his siblings have answered questions — often reluctantly — for detectives, prosecutors and grand jurors, providing a graphic and poignant coda, all the while professing their love for their mother and desire to protect her.
Anthony’s 8-year-old sister told investigators he was forced to kneel on his bare knees on dry rice “a lot,” often from the time he returned from school until bedtime. It was such a common practice that his knees were scabbed, never healing.
His 7-year-old brother told investigators the children would have to fight one another to escape punishment, and eating was a privilege that they had to earn. If they urinated while they were locked in a room, Leiva would push their face into the puddle. Sometimes, he would stuff a shirt in their mouth to muffle the screams.
Their mother is also charged with first-degree murder for her alleged complicity with Leiva. In the immediate aftermath of his death, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors promised a comprehensive public report by former Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash — director of the Office of Child Protection — of “any systemic issues” in Anthony’s protection by DCFS, the Sheriff’s Department and other county agencies.
The report included a series of recommendations, such as increasing staffing in the Antelope Valley and improving access to medical assessments to minimize risks to other children in the future. But it emphasized that Anthony had not been under county oversight for more than a year before his death and no one had told the agency of ongoing danger during that time.
Even in the period when the agency did receive warnings, Nash wrote, Anthony’s mother provided caseworkers reasons for assurance, including the successful completion of a parenting class and domestic violence program. “Numerous interviews with the children occurred wherein the children indicated no issues. Numerous persons, including social workers, relatives, service providers, school personnel, and others, reflected no concerns,” he wrote.
Nash declined to be interviewed and answered only limited questions about the case. In a brief email exchange, Nash said he did not review recordings of hotline calls by the Children’s Center counselors, the teacher at the domestic violence center, “or any other call.” Instead, he said he had relied on DCFS-provided summaries.
He also said “we did not talk about Hathaway Sycamores in our report because we did not see any information suggesting they did anything improper. To the contrary, their actions appeared to be above reproach.”
Nash acknowledged, though, that he had not read the Hathaway-Sycamores case records.
Others declined to comment entirely, including Sheriff Alex Villanueva, DCFS Director Cagle, District Attorney Jackie Lacey and Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Lancaster.
But a far more devastating portrait of DCFS came in May from State Auditor Elaine Howle.
The audit praised the department for reducing caseloads for its workers, yet it found that the department’s social workers failed to initiate and complete investigations of neglect accurately or quickly enough. In more than one-third of the cases reviewed, safety assessments were wrong because caseworkers didn’t include important risk factors such as past domestic violence or previous DCFS investigations — all information at their fingertips.
Perhaps the most stinging conclusion was that, although the county has extensively studied past child fatality cases such as Gabriel Fernandez’s, yielding key recommendations that would save lives, “the department has not ensured that its reviews … improve the services it provides.”
©2019 Los Angeles Times
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