Two months after the death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos, a report from the Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection (OCP) has determined that the county Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) took “considerable actions” to protect the child.
In light of a forthcoming state audit about DCFS practices, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors discussed the report on Tuesday, including its recommendations for improving the county’s child welfare system.
The goal of the report, which was ordered by the Board of Supervisors in June, was to investigate the circumstances surrounding Avalos’ death, and — most significantly — determine whether or not the Lancaster boy would still be alive if different actions had been taken.
“I don’t think that question can be answered,” said Judge Michael Nash, the report’s author and the executive director of OCP.
Nash was quick to dispel the theory that Avalos’ case bears resemblance to that of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was beaten to death in 2013 by his mother and her boyfriend. Nash and several supervisors reiterated the differences between the two cases — namely that Fernandez’ family was being actively monitored by DCFS at the time of his death, whereas Avalos’ family was not.
Supervisor Janice Hahn sharply questioned why that distinction had become a focal point.
“To the public, they see two little boys who are dead, there was a mother involved, a boyfriend involved,” Hahn said. “While there might be some things that are different…I think we look at the end results.”
Nash pointed out that that despite 13 reports of abuse called in against Avalos’ family from 2013 to 2016, there was nearly two years of radio silence between the last report and the boy’s death in June. Hahn questioned whether or not that, in and of itself, should have been seen as a red flag worthy of follow up.
“Did people quit calling because nothing was done? Did people quit reporting because there was no change?” Hahn asked. “To me, 13 calls and then radio silence for two years — was there ever the thought, do we check up again, do we see how Anthony is doing?”
The report details each of the documented abuse allegations and the conclusions arrived at by the DCFS social workers investigating the reports. The majority of the reports were marked “inconclusive” or “unfounded,” another point Hahn took issue with.
“Can’t we find a way to be more conclusive on physical abuse allegations?” she asked, questioning whether medical evaluations weren’t happening quickly enough to catch the signs of physical abuse.
The report found that DCFS policies were mostly followed appropriately during interactions with Avalos’ family.
The report identifies some ways DCFS can better protect children moving forward. Recommendations include better training social workers to interview children, improving their assessment skills and reducing caseloads.
The report also calls for a reevaluation of the Voluntary Family Maintenance (VFM) program, a DCFS-monitored service provided to families of children deemed at-risk for abuse or neglect without opening a dependency court case. Avalos’ family participated in the VFM program after a substantiated report of general neglect in 2014.
“Some of the changes to be contemplated include giving extra consideration before entering a voluntary family maintenance, along with enhanced monitoring when we’re talking about a family with children age 5 or younger in the home, because we know from every study that’s ever been done that the most vulnerable children are those that are under the age of 5,” Nash said at the Aug. 14 meeting.
Retraining social workers on the use of Structured Decision Making, a risk-assessment protocol used in child welfare investigations, was suggested because “multiple inaccuracies were noted in the tools’ completion” during the Avalos case. Nash said the system still provided the proper risk assessment scores, but stressed that incomplete entries can have an impact on the courses of action taken following an investigation. The efficacy of SDM was also questioned following the 2016 death of 11-year-old Yonatan Aguilar.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said implementation of these recommendations is already underway.
“I am not waiting for the results of the investigation to act,” Cagle said. He announced a new case review plan whereby more than 1,000 randomly selected cases will undergo comprehensive analysis from internal reviewers directed and guided by Cagle “so that we know what’s going on in casework in this county.”
This immediate review will lead to the formation of a permanent case-quality review team, according to the report.
Though this county-ordered OCP report has largely exonerated DCFS, the California legislative audit committee announced last week it would also be conducting an independent audit of DCFS’ policies and procedures, following a request from State Sens. Ricardo Lara (D) and Scott Wilk (R), and Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R), who all represent areas of Los Angeles.
“I welcome the state audit,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the Antelope Valley region where both Anthony and Gabriel were killed. “I’m hoping that this audit will benefit not only L.A. County, but every county in the state.”
The audit will look into whether or not L.A.’s safety, risk, and reunification assessments are timely and accurate, whether regular wellness checks are performed on children under the department’s supervision, and how the department is adapting their practices in light of the deaths of children with current or prior system involvement.
Another key focus of the audit will be assessing how DCFS identifies and protects the LGBTQ youth in its care. Department officials have suggested that both Avalos and Fernandez may have either self-identified as gay or been perceived as such, and that this could have played a part in their deaths.
“As an openly gay man who had to endure bullying … using my home as a place to shield myself from that and having a welcoming environment where I felt protected was my only reprieve,” Lara told the Los Angeles Times. “Seeing and hearing the grotesque and inhumane way these parents treated their children for being gay or being perceived as gay shocked me.”
The Board directed OCP, DCFS, and the Health Agency to move forward with implementing the recommendations outlined in Nash’s report and to provide 90-day and six-month updates on progress and next steps.