The California State Auditor will review Los Angeles County’s child welfare system in the wake of the fatal torture of 10-year-old Lancaster boy, Anthony Avalos on June 21.
On Wednesday, the California legislative audit committee approved a bipartisan request from Senators Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), and Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) to conduct an audit of whether the county’s Department of Children and Family Services adequately identifies and protects LGBTQ youth, who make up 19 percent of the teenage foster youth population in the nation’s largest foster care system.
Anthony’s case has rightly triggered a great many questions about how this child, with his enormous smile could have been left in what turned out to be horrifically tortuous and ultimately deadly circumstances.
The boy’s death reportedly followed a dozen calls to authorities from family members and others about suspected child abuse of Anthony and his siblings. Yet, the last visit by social workers to check on Anthony was in April 2016, more than two years before Anthony’s mother’s boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, allegedly murdered Anthony, according to LASD homicide detective Chris Bergner.
It has been widely reported that Anthony “came out” as gay, and that homophobia may have had a role in his death. When asked in June about the reported homophobia angle, Bergner said the issue hadn’t, at least at that point, come up in the investigation.
In a similar case in Palmdale, 5 years earlier, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was brutally and fatally beaten by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, after a handful of people made repeated reports to DCFS that the child was being badly abused.
In Gabriel’s case, prosecutors said that Aguirre and Fernandez tortured the boy because they thought he was gay.
Gabriel’s death led to the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which was tasked with identifying systemic failures and barriers to child safety. With its 2014 report bursting with recommendations, the commission jumpstart much-needed reform efforts in the county’s child welfare system.
On the commission’s urging, LA County created the Office of Child Protection headed by Judge Michael Nash. The commission intended the child protection czar’s office to be a single entity “responsible and accountable for the well-being of the child as a whole,” and without “competing responsibilities.”
Yet, there are clearly still failures in the system. And state legislators want to know if the county could do more to protect vulnerable LGBTQ kids.
“The heartbreaking deaths of Anthony and Gabriel demand that we search our souls and commit to a thorough response by all levels of our government,” said Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), vice chair of the Legislative LGBT Caucus and member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. “It has been six years since the California State Auditor reviewed child safety in Los Angeles, and I hope that County leadership will welcome this as an opportunity to improve its practices, particularly when it comes to protecting LGBT youth who are more likely to face abuse and rejection by their families.”
The lawmakers also want the state auditor to review whether social workers perform timely, thorough, and accurate assessments regarding safety, risk, and reunification, as well as abuse and neglect investigations. The audit should also determine whether the child welfare department is using what its learned from the tragic deaths of kids in its care to update practices and policies.