August 15, 2018 at 10:45 am PDT | by Karen Ocamb
State to audit LA County child welfare system, again (UPDATE)

Family photo of Anthony Avalos provided to the Los Angeles Times and the press

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors welcomes a review by the California State Auditor of child safety protections for LGBT youth in the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Will this audit address why DCFS can’t fix its child welfare system?

The audit was requested Aug. 8 by out Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), and Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) after the horrific death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos on June 21.

“I welcome the state audit,” said Board Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the Fifth District Antelope Valley region where Avalos was killed, at the Aug. 14 Board meeting. “I’m hoping that this audit will benefit not only L.A. County, but every county in the state.”

The state legislators requested the audit in response to reports that DCFS received at least 13 calls since 2013 from school administrators, a teacher, a counselor, family members and others specifically alleging that Avalos was the victim of abuse. In late June, Avalos’ mother Heather Barron and her boyfriend Kareem Leiva were arrested on suspicion of murder. Social workers had previously reported Leiva was a gang member.

Weeks after the boy’s murder, DCFS deputy director Brandon Nichols acknowledged that Avalos “said he liked boys,” adding homophobia to the motivation. In an Los Angeles Times interview published June 26, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle confirmed “that callers said Anthony or his six siblings were denied food and water, sexually abused, beaten and bruised, dangled upside-down from a staircase, forced to crouch for hours, locked in small spaces with no access to the bathroom, forced to fight one another, and forced to eat from the trash.”

Cagle added, however, “that despite the years of severe abuse alleged in Anthony’s home, it was ‘premature’ to say that Anthony’s case represented a failure of the child welfare system,” The Times reported.

DCFS presented the results of their own internal investigation at the Aug. 14 Board meeting and concluded that the agency was not to blame for Avalos’ death, nor did the case resemble the 2014 murder of 8-old Gabriel Fernandez from Palmdale, whose mother and boyfriend were convicted of murdering Gabriel and believed the boy was gay.

Our first and foremost priority is the safety of our County’s children, so when a child dies, we must ask ourselves what could have been done differently,” Cagle said in an Aug. 14 statement. “Transparency and accountability are important to the Department, and so I welcome review by external partners to help ensure we are pursuing all possible efforts that promote child safety. We appreciate the independent report by the Office of Child Protection and agree with all of the recommendations. DCFS will continue to pursue enhancements and improvements in our services for at-risk children and families.”

The audit will ask whether DCFS has adequate practices to identify and protect LGBTQ youth, who represent 19 percent of foster youth over age 12, according to a 2014 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA.

“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 Lara, a member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and vice chair of the Legislative LGBT Caucus. “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 request letter asks the auditor “to identify any breakdown in processes and recommend systemic solutions that would improve child safety.” The auditor will review whether safety, risk and reunification assessments are timely and accurate, including background checks on all individuals in a home who have access to a child; whether child abuse and neglect investigations are timely and thorough; whether DCFS performs regular and thorough wellness checks on children in its care; whether DCFS is transforming its practices and processes in response to deaths of children for whom it had responsibility or previous contact; and what are the root causes of any deficiencies.

The California State Auditor investigated similar issues in its 2012 audit of DCFS. “Widespread deficiencies found in L.A. County’s oversight of abused children” reads The Times March 30, 2012 headline. That audit found that “the county did not follow state laws requiring the results to be reported to the state Department of Justice’s child abuse database,” which made it difficult for social workers to check records before placing children.

“The audit also reported that county workers have removed thousands of children from their parents and placed them with family members without performing required safety assessments,” The Times reported, including criminal background checks. Then-DCFS director Philip Browning “said the county and the auditor had disagreed about whether the law required such a detailed study before children were placed in the homes.”

Corri Planck, a program director at the City of West Hollywood, and her wife Dianne Hardy-Garcia experienced DCFS’ deficiencies first hand. In 2005, they fostered 2-year old Sarah Chavez, whom they planned to adopt. Suddenly, the toddler was removed and returned to her maternal aunt and uncle. Months later, Sarah was dead and her relatives were on trial for murder.

“It is our hope that, in addition to the criminal trial, there will continue to be a focus on the legal, medical, and social services institutions that should have protected her, but failed to do so,” Planck told IN Los Angeles magazine in 2005. “All these breakdowns allowed her to be returned to what was clearly an unsafe home.”

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