$32 million settlement in Anthony Avalos child abuse death

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $32 million settlement for the siblings and father of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, who prosecutors say died of abuse and torture in hands of her mother and boyfriend despite repeated warnings to social workers.

The five supervisors unanimously approved the settlement of the Lancaster boy’s 2018 death, which cast a shadow over the county’s Department of Child and Family Services. The child’s death came five years after 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Daniel Fernandez was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend while under the watch of social workers.

The latest settlement is in addition to a $3 million settlement with one of the county department’s contractors, Pasadena-based Sycamores, which in 2015 provided in-home therapy to Anthony and was sued for allegations that he disregarded concerns about abuse and failed to protect the boy.

In Anthony’s case, more than a dozen calls have been made to the county’s child abuse hotline about his welfare – from teachers, counselors, family and police – but child protection officers and others tasked with protecting him missed many warning signs and opportunities to intervene, according to an investigation published by the Times and the Investigative Reporting Program from UC Berkeley. Anthony’s life was sporadically supervised by DCFS from 2013 to 2017.

Brian Claypool, one of the lead attorneys representing Anthony’s loved ones, noted that “the case was still about two things: honoring Anthony to bring about social change and preventing this from happening again.”

“We will be calling for a new law…that requires DCFS agencies statewide to deploy trained child forensic psychologists to interview a child without the presence of parents when there are serious reports of physical/sexual abuse.”

He said the law should mandate the sharing of reports of abuse, including history, between social workers and therapists – which did not happen in Anthony’s case – and that all therapists should be fully licensed, not interns, as was the case with Anthony. .

“The amount of money paid will hopefully trigger this needed change,” Claypool said.

The settlement resolved a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Anthony’s father, Victor Avalos, and three of the boy’s siblings, who also suffered abuse at the hands of their mother and boyfriend, their lawyers say . Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, were indicted by a grand jury in 2018 for torturing and murdering Anthony and abusing two of his siblings in the home. Barron and Leiva are being held without bond. Both pleaded not guilty.

In May, as a civil lawsuit was about to begin against the county for negligence, fraud and civil rights violations, county attorneys tentatively accepted the settlement.

Heather Barron and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, shown during a court appearance, are charged with murder in the death of her son Anthony Avalos.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Barron and Leiva are awaiting trial in Los Angeles County, where prosecutors say the two poured hot sauce over Anthony’s face and mouth, whipped the boy with a cord and buckled belt, and held him upside down and repeatedly dropped him on his head.

Sometimes they withheld food and force-fed him, threw him against furniture and the floor, forbade him to use the bathroom and forced their other children to inflict pain on him, prosecutors said.

The vice-principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Lancaster reported in 2015 that Anthony said his mother beat him, locked him in a room with no access to food and made him squat for long periods with his arms up. tense, a punishment nicknamed “the captain’s chair.

Anthony and his siblings also told their uncle about being locked in a room and whipped with a belt, prosecutors noted in their case. At one point, the uncle physically prevented Anthony’s mother from picking up his children, prompting a visit from LA County Sheriff’s Deputies. A deputy who responded to the scene also called the child abuse hotline and recommended that Anthony and his siblings not return home with their mother.

Nevertheless, Anthony was allowed to return to live with his mother that year. He stayed with her despite successive calls to the hotline, including one from a worker at a domestic violence program who reported that Anthony and his siblings had bruises and said Leiva had them. forced to fight.

A photo of Anthony Avalos when he was 6 years old

Anthony Avalos in a family photo at age 6 in 2013 with David and Maria Barron.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

On June 18, 2018, Anthony confided in his mother that he liked boys, according to the archives. Barron told a DCFS social worker that Leiva overheard this conversation. The following night, Leiva repeatedly dropped Anthony on the head, according to grand jury transcripts. Anthony’s mother called 911 around noon two days later, and paramedics took the boy to hospital in serious condition, where he died the following day.

A corrective action plan provided by DCFS to supervisors indicates that in August 2020, it issued a revised policy with respect to oversight of accountability in family maintenance and voluntary family maintenance programs and launched a new training program to give social workers better interviewing skills. and mandatory training for assessment tools that determine a child’s risk. Gaps in how social workers and sheriff’s deputies work together were also addressed in a March 2021 memorandum of understanding on collaboration and joint investigations.

One of Sycamores’ advisers, Barbara Dixon, was blamed by state regulators for failing to report alleged abuse in Anthony’s case. The state alleged that Dixon learned from Anthony that a relative had sexually abused him, and nothing in her notes indicated that she had reported the alleged abuse.

Later that year, Dixon noted allegations from Anthony’s uncle that his mother abused him and his siblings, but there was no record that she had discussed this with DCFS.

Earlier this year, a state licensing board imposed four-year probation on Dixon, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and required her to participate in psychotherapy, law and ethics training, and classes on assessing child abuse.

The state board had formally charged Dixon with failing to report abuse allegations against Anthony in 2015 and against Gabriel Fernandez in 2013. Claypool said that when he filed Dixon in the civil lawsuit, she relied on her constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Times writer Matt Hamilton and Garrett Therolf, a former Times writer now in UC Berkeley’s investigative reporting program, contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times

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