On July 9, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stepped to the lectern during a press conference focused on the suspicious death of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro.
Four days earlier, on July 5, Noah’s parents called 911 claiming that their son had drowned in their high desert apartment complex pool. But when deputies arrived, Villanueva says they saw “what looked like a trauma on the body inconsistent with what the explanation was for the cause of death,” spurring his department to launch a homicide investigation. Noah died on July 6.
“We are at the beginning of a very exhaustive, lengthy investigation to find out what happened with the tragic untimely passing of baby Noah,” Villanueva said.
Nearly seven weeks later and little more information is publicly available. But that should change soon.
Either the county will release a critical report on Noah’s death as early as Friday, as some county officials suggest, or the juvenile court will hand key documents over to the media in the coming weeks. This, despite the Sheriff’s Department efforts to keep burning questions about Noah’s death quiet to protect its investigation.
Most pressing is the mystery surrounding why the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) did not heed a court order to have Noah removed.
On May 13, a DCFS social worker filed a 26-page-petition to have Noah removed from his parent’s custody. The following day the juvenile dependency court issued an order to do just that, according to The Los Angeles Times, and since confirmed by The Chronicle of Social Change. Why that order was never carried out has become a focal point of media attention and countywide concern, prompting swift policy change within DCFS.
An attorney representing Noah’s great grandmother, Eva Hernandez, accused the Sheriff’s Department of leading a multi-agency effort to keep details of the case from the public.
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office has played a role in the 10-page order not being released by recently opposing a media request to obtain a copy of it claiming to do so would ‘compromise a criminal investigation,’” said Brian Claypool, in an email. “This is a disingenuous argument. The order has no bearing on the investigation of Noah’s natural parents. Rather, it suggests that three county branches have colluded (L.A. County Board of Supervisors, DCFS and L.A. County Sheriff) to prevent the public from knowing the truth behind why DCFS officials deliberately disregarded a court order to remove Noah from his parents and remand him to his great grandma Eva Hernandez.”
Claypool recently filed a $50 million suit against the county over the 2018 death of another Antelope Valley boy: 10-year-old Anthony Avalos. On Monday, Claypool says he will file a “notice of claim” against the county alleging “wrongful death, negligence, fraudulent concealment and state constitutional violations.”
On Friday, the Office of Child Protection (OCP), a county agency meant to align all departments around child safety and well-being, will submit a report on the Cuatro case to county lawyers. OCP Chief Michael Nash confirmed that his report will include reference to the all-important removal order.
“I believe everything we do should be public. Yes of course I do,” Nash said. But, added, “It is not my call at this point.”
That decision belongs to the Office of County Counsel, whose 300 attorneys are almost singularly focused on protecting the county government from liability.
“This report has not been finalized or submitted, therefore we are unable to specify details for distribution,” the Chief Executive Office, which oversees County Counsel, said in an email statement.
But Tony Bell and Monica Banken, the communications director and children’s deputy for the supervisor who ordered the OCP report, Kathryn Barger, said in an interview Friday that County Counsel “has no concern about the release of this report.”
“As far as we know from County Counsel there should be no problem,” Bell said. “As of today, this is what we know.”
Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas did not respond to requests for comment as to when and if the OCP’s report on Noah would be made public, and staff for Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that The Chronicle should direct its questions to Barger’s office. But, Supervisor Janice Hahn did respond through an email statement sent by her communications director, Liz Odendahl:
“It is important for the public and the child protection community to understand what happened and this report should be made public as soon as possible,” Odendahl said.
For its part, DCFS filed, and was granted, a request with the county’s juvenile dependency court to make some facts about the case public shortly after news of Noah’s death broke, according to multiple sources. But the department has since been tight-lipped about the case and any potential missteps it or other agencies could have made in the run-up to this latest tragedy. Multiple sources within county government confirmed that the Sheriff’s Department, as is customary during murder investigations, requested that DCFS keep details of Noah’s case hushed.
“As a public agency, and one charged with safeguarding our most vulnerable population, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) strives to be as transparent as possible when discussing any interaction we may have with children and their families,” DCFS Public Affairs Director Michelle Vega said in an email. “We must do so while respecting the confidentiality laws intended to protect siblings and family members and any ongoing investigations by law enforcement.”
When asked by email if the Sheriff’s Department requested that DCFS not disclose information contained within Noah’s dependency court case file, a department spokesperson, Deputy Morgan Arteaga, said: “I cannot provide you with any other information regarding the Cuatro case besides what was given out at the [July 9] press conference.”
While DCFS documents state the cause of death as “severe neglect,” it remains unclear whether or not the County Coroner has finalized its autopsy of the boy.
“Law enforcement placed a security hold on the case; therefore, the report is not available at this time,” said Sarah Ardalani, a spokesperson for the coroner, in an email.
One party that must disclose information is the juvenile dependency court. Shortly after the Times revealed that DCFS disregarded the removal order, The Chronicle, and other news outlets, filed requests with the court to review the removal order and the petition that preceded it.
California statute is clear that the court must make files surrounding the case of a deceased child public in almost all cases:
The presiding judge of the juvenile court may issue an order prohibiting or limiting access to the juvenile case file, or any portion thereof, of a deceased child only upon a showing by a preponderance of evidence that release of the juvenile case file or any portion thereof is detrimental to the safety, protection, or physical or emotional well-being of another child who is directly or indirectly connected to the juvenile case that is the subject of the petition,” reads section 827 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code.
Monique Stevens, a court-appointed attorney representing Noah’s father, filed an objection to The Chronicle’s 827 request earlier this month.
“If the details of the case are released, Noah’s siblings would be traumatized due to the recent death of their sibling, and would be forced to endure emotional issues regarding other family members and their parents, would be forced to endure undue media attention, could put their placement in jeopardy, as well as disrupt their schooling.”
The notice and review period takes roughly six weeks, meaning that multiple media requests regarding Noah’s case should reach Presiding Judge Victor Greenberg’s desk shortly.
Sara Tiano and Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story.