Controversy over 4-Year-Old’s Death Intensifies at L.A. County Child Welfare Meeting

On Monday, the tension that has gripped Los Angeles County’s child welfare establishment since the mysterious July death of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro spilled out into public view.

At a meeting of the county’s Commission for Children and Families, the chiefs of both the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Office of Child Protection (OCP) grew visibly and audibly frustrated with commissioners’ questions about the Cuatro case.

Michael Nash, who leads the OCP, had been invited to take questions regarding the report he wrote detailing DCFS’ actions in the case. That report, which was released after a delay on Sept. 11, essentially absolved DCFS of any wrongdoing, despite the fact that DCFS staff agreed to ignore a court order to remove the boy from his parents’ custody less than two months before he died.

Commissioner Wendy Garen asked Nash whether he had conducted outside interviews or relied entirely on documentation provided by DCFS and the juvenile court to conduct his report. Nash answered that because he had reviewed “thousands of pages” of documents, he “didn’t deem it necessary” to conduct other interviews.

“To me there is a closeness of ‘we are the county’ looking at the county,” Garen said. “And without spending the additional work to do direct observation and interviews, I am uncomfortable relying on the opinion.”

To which Nash replied:

That’s your prerogative at this point. But quite frankly I resent what you just said. OK. The fact that I represent, that I work for the county, does not mean that I cannot provide an objective perspective on what’s out there. In fact, I was hired specifically because of my experience, and the fact that I can provide an objective perspective. So in effect you have accused me of just the opposite. And I don’t appreciate that.

“I am not impugning you,” Garen said. “But I am saying that the underlying work to this product to me isn’t enough. Given the scrutiny, and the outside level of scrutiny. This won’t make it go away.“

Later in the meeting, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle, who regularly attends commission meetings, interjected to protest the tenor of the commissioners’ questions.

“The thing that strikes me here, and know that I have spent 31 years doing this work. I come at this because I have a personal reason for doing this work. I could have found easier jobs,” Cagle said.

“And it strikes me, though, because people are so concerned about the death of a child, and Lord knows I am, there is no satisfaction for anyone unless there is a pound of flesh to be had on the part of somebody in the department.”

To which, Commission Chair Wendy Smith said:

“From my point of view it’s not about a pound of flesh, it’s about what can we learn to help us prevent this from happening. It’s really not about assigning blame. It’s about understanding how, with the best intentions of everyone in the situation – which I assume –­ things can go wrong.”

“They can,” Cagle responded. “And the fact here is that these are very complex cases. These families have very complex lives before any of us ever became involved in their lives.

“But the questioning here is along the lines of what didn’t you ask that you should have asked in order to be able to get to who is responsible for this. And the fact of the matter is we have a set of recommendations, we have a very thorough report here that we will act on. But that does not seem to be enough.”

On July 5, Noah’s parents called 911 claiming that their son had drowned in their Palmdale apartment complex pool. At a July 9, press conference Sheriff Alex Villanueva said that when deputies arrived on the scene 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.

The Sheriff’s investigation is ongoing.

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Daniel Heimpel
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Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.