A state licensing board has imposed four-year probation on an LA County contracted counselor for failing to report the alleged abuse of Gabriel Fernandez and Anthony Avalos, two young boys whose deaths put in light of the glaring shortcomings in the region’s child protection system.
In a decision that took effect March 31, the state Behavioral Science Board placed Barbara Dixon, a licensed marriage and family therapist, on probation and required her to participate in psychotherapy, law and ethics and courses on assessing child abuse.
The state board had formally charged Dixon last year with failing to report abuse allegations of Gabriel in 2013 and Anthony in 2015. Dixon was also charged by the licensing board with gross negligence and unprofessional conduct, according to the records.
Dixon’s conduct was first reported to the state board in 2019 by an anonymous complaint containing an article the Times published the same day about his involvement in the two children’s cases. To resolve the disciplinary case with probation, Dixon waived his right to contest the pending charges.
His attorney, Gina Lacagnina, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Dixon provided in-home counseling services to the two boys as part of his work with what was then called Hathaway-Sycamore Child and Family Services, a Pasadena nonprofit that contracts with LA County to provide child protective, mental health, foster care, and other services. Last summer, the organization changed its name to Sycamores.
About a month before Gabriel was killed in 2013, Dixon wrote in his notes that the boy had “visible injuries to his body (scratches, bruises, etc.)” and was limping and had a black eye. . Dixon questioned the boy in front of his mother and wrote that the boy “spoke in a low voice” and repeated his mother’s account that he had fallen off a bicycle.
Gabriel’s mother was to provide a doctor’s note regarding treatment of these injuries during their next session with Dixon, but Gabriel’s mother missed the appointment. There were no notes showing that Dixon had ever had medical treatment or the status of the child’s injuries, and she withheld the information from the child abuse hotline, flouting a law of the State which obliges him to report any alleged abuse.
Dixon was granted immunity to testify in the criminal case that was later filed against LA County Department of Child and Family Services social workers involved in Gabriel’s case. In 2017, she testified that she initially believed the family’s account that Gabriel fell off the bike, but became concerned after walking around and talking to him, the Times previously reported. .
Dixon testified that her boss at Hathaway-Sycamores did not want her to report the abuse and that she complied with the directive. Consequently, DCFS did not learn of the injuries documented by Dixon until after Gabriel’s death.
State disciplinary records make no mention of Hathaway-Sycamores’ instructions to Dixon, who testified that she could not alert the child abuse hotline without permission from a supervisor.
Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, were convicted in 2018 of first-degree murder in her death under torture. Aguirre was sentenced to be executed and Fernandez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Representatives for Sycamores did not respond to messages seeking comment. Chief executive Debra Manners previously told The Times that Sycamores complies with California mandatory reporting laws.
“The Reporting Act specifically states that individuals (not entities) are commissioned journalists,” Manners told the newspaper in an email in 2019.
Dixon continued to work at Hathaway-Sycamores and began providing home therapy to Anthony Avalos in early 2015, records show. By this time, DCFS had already received several reports of alleged abuse of Anthony or his siblings by their mother, and in the year Dixon worked with Anthony, his records did not mention any new allegations reached the child abuse hotline.
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. Soon after, Anthony returned to live with his mother.
When Dixon went to see the boy less than two weeks later, she described the boy as showing “regressed behaviors”, such as “moaning, pouting, crying and defiance”, which were not present before. Dixon wrote that Anthony shared “reflections related to the recent crisis” but did not document any direct assessment of the alleged abuse, the state counsel said.
Anthony died in 2018 and his mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, were charged with killing the boy and abusing two other children in the household. Barron and Leiva have pleaded not guilty.
DCFS declined to elaborate on what penalties, if any, were imposed on Sycamores for its handling of the Gabriel and Anthony cases, saying in a statement that it “holds its contracted agencies and employees up to standard.” highest legal and ethical standards”. In the fiscal year ending in 2021, Sycamores had $54 million in contracts with LA County, or about 88% of its total program services revenue, according to the group’s latest audit.
Dixon signed a stipulated settlement in October, which was passed by the state licensing board last month. As part of the resolution, she must pay $1,200 a year for supervision while on probation as well as $8,800 for the costs of her investigation and prosecution. Probation will not end until payment is made.
Los Angeles Times