Since the news of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro’s death broke earlier this month, Los Angeles County officials and local media have latched onto a similar theme: that the sparsely populated Antelope Valley region is particularly dangerous for children.
In the past six years, the high-desert area encompassing the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale has been wracked by two other high-profile cases in which children died at the hands of their parents.
The Antelope Valley was home to the highest child-maltreatment rates in Los Angeles County for children ages 0 to 5, according to an analysis conducted by the Children’s Data Network in 2015. But is it really home to more of the county’s most tragic child deaths: those caused by abuse or neglect after a family’s risk was known to the county?
“We know that child abuse occurs in families regardless of demographics or geography, whether they’re rich or poor, urban or rural,” said Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director Bobby Cagle last week at a meeting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. “However, in the Antelope Valley, we face unique challenges such as fewer community-based resources in the region, inaccessibility due to transportation constraints, a limited pipeline for potential staff, and higher staff turnover and less experienced workers.”
Data provided to The Chronicle of Social Change by DCFS shows that child fatalities occur in the county in a way that doesn’t conform to any simple narrative. While some areas see higher numbers of children who were known to the child welfare system being killed at the hands of their caregivers, the Antelope Valley does have a disproportionate number of such tragedies given its relatively small child population.
The number of children who die at the hands of their parent or caregiver is trending down over the past 10 years. In 2010, there were 44 such deaths, including 31 in which DCFS had some prior contact with a child. In 2018, there were 19 child deaths —11 of which involved prior contact with a family before the tragedy, according to data provided by DCFS.
From 2015 to 2018 densely populated South L.A. had 20 child deaths involving children known to the system who were killed by caregivers. The second-leading area, with 12 deaths, is the South Bay, which includes Long Beach, parts of South L.A. and wealthy coastal communities like Manhattan Beach. The Antelope Valley, with 11, ranks third.
The DCFS data on child deaths in L.A. County was provided according to service planning areas (SPAs), a way in which the county’s public health department divvies up L.A.’s roughly 10 million residents into eight geographic regions. Each SPA corresponds with a different part of the county and varies widely by population; SPA 1, which covers the Antelope Valley, has a population of 390,938, while SPA 6 counts nearly three times that: 1,030,078.
Even though SPA 1 does not have the highest overall number of children killed by parents and caregivers in the county, it has a lower child population. According to a 2014 population estimate by the L.A. County Department of Public Health, the Antelope Valley had about 109,000 children living there. In SPA 6, which includes most of South L.A., there are about 309,000 children and about 342,000 children in SPA 8, representing the county’s South Bay.
Given its lower population, Antelope Valley’s 11 child deaths means that tragedy disproportionately strikes families there. But while the region is now attracting needed attention, children still die in awful ways in other parts of the county at a greater clip.
The parents of a 6-month-old Jacsun Manson admitted to police that their child had died in a South L.A. motel while they smoked methamphetamine and marijuana on New Year’s Eve. Adam Manson and Kiana Williams initially claimed their baby was missing, launching a national search through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Eventually, the parents admitted that after they failed to revive Jacsun through CPR, they packed the boy into a suitcase and threw it into a trash bin near the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Police searched the El Sobrante Landfill in Corona for the infant’s remains.
Prior to their arrest, the couple had been at the Upward Bound House, a Culver City transitional apartment program for families at risk of falling into homelessness. About a month and a half before the boy died, a case manager at the facility called DCFS, concerned about drug paraphernalia, cigarette butts and trash near the baby’s crib in their room.
Manson and Williams were later charged with one count of child abuse. The body of Jacsun still remains missing.
While Gabriel, Anthony and Noah are known across the county, it’s a safe bet that many fewer know Jacsun’s name, too.
Daniel Heimpel contributed to this story.