In 2013, Vicky Bibby was working as a social worker for a home visitation program in Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley, checking in on pregnant women and young mothers to make sure they were learning healthy habits and how to bond with their children.
In May of that year, when the first news reports came about the terrible torture and murder of 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez, she was shocked.
The apartment building where he died was the same one she had visited a week before his death. Bibby had checked in on a different family, but she was haunted, and wracked by guilt.
“I was so close — how could I not have known?” Bibby said she remembers thinking at the time. “It hit so close to home; it’s personal. It’s so hard for us to see these tragedies.”
Gabriel’s death provoked a sense of community trauma for many in the Antelope Valley that still resonates deeply years after his death. But last month, the death of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro dredged up a too-familiar nightmare for many residents there, including those who are working the front lines of the high desert region’s fragile safety net.
“You’ll see something on the news and you’ll say, ‘Please don’t say Lancaster, please don’t say Palmdale,’” said Sue Page, executive director of the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley. “But it happened again.”
Noah’s death marks the third time in six years that a media frenzy has erupted over an Antelope Valley child allegedly killed by his parents and caregivers. Each incident precipitated rounds of media coverage, which scrutinized the policies and practices of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
But these child deaths left a mark on the Antelope Valley community, a remote area of L.A. County that is culturally and geographically isolated from the seat of county government in downtown L.A. Last month, in the immediate wake of Noah’s death, the county Board of Supervisors pledged to increase the number of social workers working in the Antelope Valley, but many in the community believe any effort to prevent other tragedies must grapple with the realities of the area.
“We’re just paying attention to these issues once it’s too late,” said Miguel Coronado, a local educator and activist who spoke to media on behalf of Noah’s family after the boy died in July. “When there’s a tragedy of death, that’s when people start feeling concerned. But the fact of the matter is, this is happening every single day, when children are being abused in the home. As you and I speak, there’s abuse happening here. That’s a result of desperation and poverty, lack of education, deplorable conditions in the home, drug abuse like opiates and other substances.”
In the aftermath of another horrific tragedy, there is a need to understand how the unique nature of Antelope Valley shapes child abuse here — from its blazing-hot desert temperatures and far-flung location at the corner of the county, to social isolation, entrenched poverty and an abiding fear of DCFS surveillance.
Two Sides of the Street
On a busy stretch of the Sierra Highway in Palmdale, Antelope Valley’s second-largest city, Joshua trees are striking sentinels to a massive, boxy white building that serves as one of Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works plants, which has for decades churned out next-generation aircraft and experimental technologies.
On the other side of the thoroughfare lies DCFS’s Palmdale office, nestled in an office park. Further down the street is a series of run-down motels that locals say has at times played a part in the area’s sex-trafficking scene.
Antelope Valley quickly shed its sleepy farming and aerospace origins to become a high-desert bedroom community above the sprawl of Los Angeles County, which is often referred to as “down below” by many Antelope Valley residents.
But the region can’t escape the perception that it is often a stepchild to the rest of the largely urban county.
“We’re the last to receive funding and the first to be cut,” said Bibby, who serves as director of direct services for Antelope Valley Partners for Health.
Deep Poverty and Isolation
In addition to high rates of mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence in the Antelope Valley, poverty is a persistent issue, made more difficult by a lack of services for families in need. The area currently lacks nine primary care physicians for children served by the state’s Medicaid system, said Page of the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley. And at Palmdale Elementary School District, 84.6 percent of children qualify for free or reduced school lunches, nearly all of them children of color. When it comes to child abuse, a more complex issue is also at stake: isolation caused by economic and environmental factors.
Average summer temperatures in the Antelope Valley hover well above 100 degrees, making playing outside downright dangerous. That can lead to more blow-ups for stressed families, say many people who work in the area’s child welfare system.
The other issue is the transient nature there. Some people are attracted to Antelope Valley for its remoteness, a place where they are able to live in greater privacy. But even more flee there for affordable housing as relentless rent increases have made other parts of the county unaffordable for scores of families.
But leaving for cheaper rents often comes at a cost.
“People move into the Antelope Valley because there’s affordable housing but you leave your support systems behind — your family members like the grandmother that usually takes care of the children,” said Rosie Mainella of AFFIRM, a local organization that works to address child abuse prevention.
With many parents spending long hours commuting to work, many residents say that as a result, the social fabric is sometimes weak here, particularly among marginalized families struggling to survive.
“People come here and rent their home or buy their home, they don’t know their neighbor,” said Mainella of AFFIRM. “I feel the biggest need here is for connection.”
Another issue for many families in the area is a fear of DCFS involvement. Antelope Valley has the highest child-maltreatment rate in the county for children between birth and 5 years old, as well as the highest infant mortality rates and the highest percentage of babies born with low weight in the county. But some community leaders feel that DCFS overreacts in some situations.
“I am always uncomfortable when the grandkids visit our Lancaster home,” said Rex Parris, mayor of Lancaster, the area’s largest city. “We prefer to have them stay with us in our weekend home in another county … I know [DCFS] to be totally unprincipled and ruthless. If one of the grandchildren fell and got hurt, they could have them in foster care for months.”
As the Antelope Valley Freeway leads over the San Gabriel Mountains, just past rock formations made famous as the backdrop in a long list of Hollywood productions, a billboard heralds happier times. The annual Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival takes place in August every year, a time to celebrate its agricultural traditions and present-day community.
That, say community members, is just one way the area rises above its grisly spate of child fatality headlines. In fact, a community response to child abuse prevention in the Antelope Valley stretches back more than a generation.
In 1988, after Time Magazine tagged the growing Antelope Valley as one of the worst places in the country for child abuse, the community rolled to action. Dozens of leaders from the area, including members of the business community and doctors at the Antelope Valley Hospital, each chipped in initial investments of $10,000 to help form the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley, according to executive director Page.
“We are not a wealthy community by and large, but this is a place that ponies up $250,000 a year to make sure kids here have services,” said Donna Gaddis, a compliance manager at the center. The agency provides therapeutic services to more than 500 children a month, she said, with a quarter of a million dollars a year coming from community donations in addition to other sources.
What Needs to Change
Lancaster Mayor Parris said that he’d like to see more effort put into using technology like predictive analytics to better identify the families with the greatest risk of abuse as well as preventative measures that intervene with families earlier, like checking in with mothers in hospital maternity wards.
Mainella of AFFIRM said that the county should create a hotline for parents to call during moments of crisis.
“They can call and say, ‘I need help, I need a break, I need it now,’ and we can send somebody right away and not get them in trouble,” she said. “So there’s no fear that if I ask for help, I’m not going to get my children taken away from me.”
Then there’s Gabriel’s Law. In the wake of Noah Cuatro’s death, Tom Lackey, a state assemblymember from Palmdale, has reintroduced a bill that would create an online database for multiple agencies to cross-report substantiated allegations of child abuse. Previous attempts to pass the bill in the aftermath of Gabriel Fernandez’s death have run afoul of the ACLU and others, who have suggested that such a database would violate the civil rights of parents. Gaddis of the Children’s Center of the Antelope Valley thinks such an idea addresses a critical need.
“The only way we can see that things are going to change is if we put into place a program that is comprehensive and monitors those families who don’t want to be monitored, and that is a tough sell,” Gaddis said. “In our experience, the parents who need it most don’t show up at the back to school night, don’t show up at the resource fair, don’t show up at the free parenting classes. We do a lot of events as a community; the ones who are the most at-risk don’t show up. That’s the reality.”
‘In Our Backyard’
More than a month after Noah’s death, Antelope Valley community is still coming to terms with another senseless tragedy.
“When I found out about Noah, it just broke my heart,” Mainella said. “I thought that after Gabriel, things were going to be better because they infused more money and social workers into the DCFS system so caseloads would be lower. … But I think we’ve seen that we can’t always take care of every person and you can’t change systems quickly. Change comes slow. Unfortunately, it was too slow for these children.”
For Bibby, who has been working in the Antelope Valley for more than two decades, reading about the three child deaths is like a gut punch.
“When I read [about Noah’s death] and see this, I feel so defeated,” Bibby said. “We’re never going to stop fighting though. For me personally, it’s my mission but it’s hard not to think I do all this work every day and I gather my team and they feel it too. Are we making an impact? There are still children dying and getting hurt. They’re in our backyard.”
This article was updated to reflect that no information has yet been released about Noah Cuatro’s cause of death.