The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has formally approved a $32 million settlement in a civil lawsuit over the 2018 death of Anthony Avalos, a 10-year-old Lancaster boy who died after allegedly being tortured by his mother and her boyfriend. Today, the county also announced a corrective plan that will address systemic issues raised in his case, including the need for more training for social workers and better collaboration with law enforcement.
The settlement with Anthony’s family was first announced in May, but had been pending, awaiting final approval of the board of supervisors. The motion approved this week by Los Angeles County officials instructs the Auditor-Controller to draw the money from the budget of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
A wrongful death lawsuit filed in July 2019 alleged that the department’s social workers failed to properly investigate multiple reports that Anthony and his siblings were being abused at home.
His mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, are also being criminally prosecuted, and face life imprisonment if convicted.
Court documents filed in the civil case allege that before he died, Anthony had been whipped with a cord and a belt, held upside down, dropped on his head and burned with hot sauce. Local child protection authorities received 13 reports about the welfare of Anthony and his siblings from 2013 to 2016.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes the community where Avalos lived, said Anthony’s abuse and his death continues to be painful.
“When it comes to child welfare cases and children’s lives, we can’t afford to throw up our hands or be resigned,” Barger wrote in an email to The Imprint. “We must take every opportunity, every chance to make improvements. We can’t continue to fail the most vulnerable amongst us.”
One of the attorneys representing Anthony and his siblings also praised the agreement finalized this week.
“The Avalos settlement will hopefully bring about much needed change within L.A. County DCFS, including improved training of social workers to act in the best interest of a child when obvious red flags of abuse surface,” Brian Claypool said in an email.
Barron and Leiva were indicted by a grand jury in 2018 on charges that they murdered Anthony and abused two other children living in the home, and remain imprisoned. A pretrial hearing in the criminal case will begin on Oct. 25 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Anthony’s family also recently settled a related case against mental health provider Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, now known as Sycamores. That lawsuit alleged that the Pasadena-based agency had assigned counselor Barbara Dixon to provide in-home therapy to Anthony and his family, even though she had allegedly not reported child abuse in the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was also killed while in the care of his mother and her boyfriend in 2013. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that a state licensing board has suspended Dixon’s license because of her conduct in those cases.
The family’s lawsuit against Sycamores was settled in August for $3 million, attorney Claypool said.
Two months after Anthony died, a Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection report determined that the Department of Children and Family Services took “considerable actions” to protect the child. But the oversight agency recommended improved training for social workers, stepped-up assessment skills and lower social worker caseloads.
That was followed by a 2019 California state audit, which found the department had failed to complete timely and accurate safety and risk assessments when investigating allegations of abuse and neglect.
The “summary corrective action plan” issued today by Department of Children and Family Services Director Brandon Nichols and Senior Deputy Director Diane Iglesias identified seven “root causes” of failures in Anthony’s case. They include inappropriate termination of the child welfare agency’s voluntary family maintenance program, incorrect use of risk assessment tools, heavy social worker and supervisor caseloads and a lack of collaboration with law enforcement officials.
The plan also notes progress on addressing those issues, including revised policies, trainings and employee retention efforts.
“Anthony’s death and other child tragedies demonstrate the complexities of child welfare,” a department statement released today reads, “and we continue to apply lessons learned to evolve and improve the way we work with children and families.”
Child welfare officials acknowledged that they are reliant on partnerships with other county departments and community groups to keep families together and safe.
“In a county as vast and complex as Los Angeles, no single agency can protect children and youth alone,” the department stated.