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Will the Death of This Little Boy Drive Up Foster Care Removals In LA County?

Daniel Heimpel
Written by Daniel Heimpel

EDITOR’S NOTE: The death late last week of Anthony Avalos, a ten-year-old Lancaster boy, is growing more painful the more that we learn about circumstances that led to his being rushed to a hospital Wednesday with critical injuries. According to a story published Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, the boy who smiles winningly in family Facebook photos had severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body when he died early on Thursday morning, after lingering through the night.

We have also now learned that law enforcement officers and caseworkers from the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services were called by Anthony’s family members and others at least 16 times in recent months and years with reports that Anthony and, in some cases, his siblings, were being abused.

Yet, in addition to the anguished questions about what could have prevented the death of Anthony Avalos, there is also the worry among child advocates that a new high profile tragedy of this nature could trigger a reactive pendulum swing of LA County’s foster care policies, which could, in turn, cause children to be removed unnecessarily from their families in an effort to prevent future tragedies.

In the story below, Chronicle of Social Change editor and founder, Daniel Heimpel, looks at various facets of this crucial and complicated issue.


Will L.A.’s Latest Child Death Drive up Foster Care Numbers?

by Daniel Heimpel

On Thursday, Los Angeles news outlets started reporting on the death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos. The home where the boy was found “unresponsive” on Wednesday had been visited by law enforcement and the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which investigates allegations of child abuse, according to news reports.

While we are still in early days, the death of a child known to child protective services can have long lasting repercussions. Here in Los Angeles, the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in 2013, and the 2016 death of 11-year-old Yonatan Aguilar roiled county government and shook DCFS leading to reforms that are still playing out today.

Tragically, child deaths are an inescapable reality for a sprawling child protection system like L.A.’s, and these incidents are the ultimate test for the system’s leadership.

On Nov. 29, Bobby Cagle was sworn in as the director of L.A. County’s child welfare system, the largest in the nation. Photo courtesy of LA County’s DCFS

This is the first high profile death since the county hired Bobby Cagle as DCFS director. Cagle most recently led Georgia’s child protection system. When he took the helm of that system in 2014 there were 8,538 children in foster care. By the time he left three-and-a-half years later, the number stood at 13,542, a nearly 60 percent surge in the number of children in foster care.

Much like the situation he is faced with today, the dramatic rise in foster care numbers in Georgia came on the heels of high profile child deaths.

Having presided over one of the steepest increases in foster care rates in recent child welfare history, will this latest child death mean children will be removed from their homes at a faster rate here in Los Angeles County? If the death’s of Gabriel and Yonatan are any indication, this may very well be the case.

During the tenure of Cagle’s predecessor Philip Browning, the number of children in foster care grew at a modest rate as compared to Georgia – in part driven by more aggressive scrutiny of child abuse allegations. Between 2000 and 2011 the rate at which investigations were filed as “petitions” to open a case in the county’s juvenile dependency court fluctuated from 4.6 to 8.5 percent. But, starting in 2012, when Browning was hired, the rate steadily rose, arriving at 10 percent in 2016. When Browning started his 5-year stint as DCFS director there were roughly 15,000 kids living in out-of-home care. By the time he left in late 2016 the number had swelled to 18,000.

“I think that numbers went up frankly because of this tragic situation we had in the Antelope Valley [the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez],” Browning said in an interview on the eve of his retirement. “I think what happened was that that the public and I were shocked at what happened to that young child, and I think the public started calling in, and maybe they wouldn’t have in the past. We got thousands more phone calls, which resulted in thousands more investigations that resulted in more children being detained.”

In an interview before being sworn in last November Cagle said: “If anyone running a system says that child safety isn’t the top goal, you ought to be fired.”

In the wake of Anthony’s death he released a statement echoing this disposition.

“As a department, our first and foremost priority is the safety of our county’s children, and we grieve whenever we hear of a child’s death,” Cagle said. “We also try to understand how such tragedies occur, and we work hard to figure out how they might have been prevented in the first place.”

Part of his predecessor’s response was to file more petitions, which resulted in more child removals. While in Georgia, Cagle paid investigators overtime and hired new social workers to carry out investigations, which, coupled with increased calls to the child abuse hotline there, also contributed to more child removals.

He now sits at the helm of a $2.4 billion agency with thousands of workers. Will Cagle respond to this latest tragedy by ramping up scrutiny of child abuse allegations? There are 18,150 children in foster care today, according to DCFS. If history is a guide, those numbers may well go up.



Author Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, a national news outlet that covers issues affecting vulnerable children, youth and their families.
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7 Comments

  • The failure of the social programs championed by the liberal, social justice warriors collapse. They cannot handle the already sprawling LA County native endangered children, yet, they want all the children of the world to illegally enter the country to provide for them. These social justice warriors should first get their own children in safe houses, instead of pretending to be saving the children of the world from Trump.

    • Worse than that the left seems to have adopted a religious like dogma that the worst thing that can happen to a child is for them to be removed from a parent. As the bodies of battered children pile up, Witness la runs thumb sucking articles where the worst thing imaginable is abused kids being removed from their abusing parents. Wonder when they’re going to start minimizing pedophilia all in the name of “keeping families together”.

  • What do people want? It was advocated that separating children from their mother was not only bad for the child’s development but inhumane to break the mother child bond. The legal system and family court have always endeavored to keep children with the mother whether she be a drug user, child abuser or most commonly in instances of divorce. Society knows all women are automatically “good mothers”.

    Now we’ve come full circle and are considering the removal of children from their homes. I just hope the police are left out of it. Liberals are advocating ICE should be abolished and stirring up the people to the point of endanger and interfering with them for doing their job.

    People would have a fit seeing uniformed police removing children from the home, no matter what kind of scumbag the mother might be. The media would be sure to draw parallels to Nazi death squads and the Gestapo I’m sure.

    Time magazine might even photo-shop a police officer into wearing a full on black “SS” uniform with a swastika arm band and Jack boots. Is this artistic license? I guess…it’s sure not journalism or factual reporting.

    • “It’s sure not journalism or factual reporting.”

      On that subject the Gallup Poll has a finding out that most Americans don’t trust what they read in the media. Not only that. most Americans have not the slightest clue where they can find a neutral source for objective information.

      All of that can be Googled: Gallup Poll–medis is biased.

      On another topic, today (6-25-2018; Monday) the U.S. Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for the Civil Trial of Sgt. Erick Gelhaus of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in the shooting of Andy Lopez.

  • Another innocent and defenseless child is killed in an environment where parents should be nurturing and protecting them and County government authorities removing them from the home if they are not. This fact in itself, is outrageous, without all the various political and media factions using this tragedy to push their political agendas. Mainstream media outlets are pushing the boy allegedly coming out as gay (as a ten-year-old), as the reason he was abused. Yet these same outlets are choosing not to report revelations that his stepfather is an MS-13 gang member residing in this country illegally. DCFS and LASD workforces are both hideously understaffed and their caseloads insurmountable. Should these staffing levels be ignored, and should we continue to allow the free flow of humanity to pour in to Southern California to aggravate this problem? Might the County’s funds committed to sanctuary policies be better used to protect children already living here? For me, this little boy’s death is just the latest example of the County Board of Supervisors following Sacramento in running off the rails. It’s really sad.

  • Every active gang member who has a child of their own, that they’re the custodial parent of, should wake up one morning to find that child gone or just not be able to find that child one day. Be the best thing in the world that could happen to that kid. A guy who grew up in a gang home told me that.

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