The guilty verdicts last week in the case of Anthony Avalos, the 10-year-old Lancaster boy who was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend in 2018, should send a clear message to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), prosecutors and the victim’s family say.
“Children in the system, children of color and children from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods matter,” said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, who was the lead prosecutor of the case against Heather Barron, 34, and her live-in boyfriend, 38-year-old Kareem Leiva, for Avalos’ death.
Referencing DCFS, he added “I think others also bear some responsibility for what happened to Anthony and true justice would also mean they are held accountable as well. That hasn’t happened, so that’s disappointing.”
“To say this is the end, and justice was completely served, is unrealistic,” Maria Barron, Heather’s sister and Anthony Avalos’ aunt, told Los Angeles after the verdicts last week.
The Trial Of Heather Barron And Kareem Leiva
Maria Barron testified during the trial that she had reported that her nephew was being abused to DCFS in 2015. Other testimony showed that, between 2013 and 2017, the agency received a total of 13 reports of Avalos being abused. Still, DCFS never attempted to remove either Avalos or his siblings—half-brother Raphael, half-sister Destiny or half-brother Angel—from the home.
“Listening to all the missed opportunities that DCFS had to save them breaks my heart and makes me so angry,” she said. “We put our faith and trust into a system that ultimately failed Anthony and his siblings.”
She added that seeing images of her nephew “covered in bruises from head to toe” in the courtroom was painful.
The 10-year-old died in 2018 of blunt force trauma and prolonged child neglect. During the six-week-long bench trial, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta listened to prosecutors describe how Barron and Leiva beat him with a belt, burned him with cigarettes and torture him using hot sauce.
During the trial, prosecutors also played a shocking recording of DCFS social worker Anna Sciortino, who was laughing and making jokes on an emergency hotline while receiving a description of Anthony Avalos’ abuse. In response to that, Hatami stated, “DCFS needs to stop just going through the motions and actually start caring about our children.”
Last Tuesday, Ohta found Barron and Leiva guilty on one count each of murder by torture, a special circumstance that comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. They are expected to appeal.
Why The Avalos Case Shows The Need For Reforms
It’s a rare conviction, one which Hatami has only seen a single time before in his 17 years of prosecuting: In the Gabriel Fernandez case. That 6-year-old Palmdale boy died in 2013 after enduring months of torturous abuse by his mother and her boyfriend, allegedly because they believed that the small boy was gay.
Both deaths inspired outrage from the community and the nation, often directed at DCFS, and the Fernandez case inspired a Netflix docuseries, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, at the end of which a tearful Hatami is shown coming out as a survivor of child abuse himself.
The California State Board of Behavioral Sciences last year placed DCFS counselor Barbara Dixon a counselor employed by a county-contracted non-profit agency, on a four-year probation for failing to report the abuse of both Avalos and Fernandez. She had also faced charges of gross negligence and unprofessional conduct by the licensing board, but those were dropped. Four social workers had initially been charged in connection with Gabriel Fernandez’s death, but an appeals court ordered those charges dropped in 2020. No DCFS workers have been charged in connection with Anthony Avalos’ death.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2022 approved a $32 million settlement in a lawsuit filed by Avalos’ relatives, who accused multiple social workers of failing to properly respond to abuse reports regarding the child and his siblings.
DCFS said in a statement last week that “Anthony’s memory and that of other children lost to abuse serve to reinforce our commitment to the well-being of families, and fortify our resolve to identify and address systemic challenges.”
Has There Been Progress After The Avalos and Fernandez Cases?
The department told LAMag that it has implemented a number of changes over the last several years. Among them, they claim that they have: hired thousands more new social workers; launched an electronic system for emergency response social workers to access criminal background data and other pertinent information relevant to an investigation of child abuse or neglect; implemented countywide cross-training; and have retrained social workers on how to interview witnesses, when to use forensic exams and how to handle a child’s recanted allegations of abuse or neglect.
But for Anthony’s family, those changes are not enough.
“New laws need to be made to hold social workers accountable for negligence, especially if the child dies,” Maria Barron said. “If we hold workers accountable for their actions, then maybe the system will start changing.”
Hatami has written a legislative proposal, entitled “Anthony’s Law,” that would change the California Penal and Government Code to allow “the public the option of filing criminal charges against social workers whose actions led to the abuse or death of children.”
He is hoping an Assembly member sponsors it.
Victor Avalos, Anthony’s father, “really hopes” that this tragedy leads to concrete changes in the system.
“I guess we will have to wait to see,” he said.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.