Late last month, another young child involved with Los Angeles County’s child welfare system died in the Antelope Valley under unknown circumstances. Unlike the headline-grabbing cases of other children dying at the hands of a parent, 19-month-old Joseph Chacon was found unresponsive in a car seat inside his foster mother’s vehicle.
On January 24, deputies from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department responded to a 911 report that a 19-month-old child was not breathing on the 5700 block of Monaco Lane in Palmdale, outside the home of his caregivers.
Joseph was later taken to a hospital where he died. According to media reports, workers with L.A. County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) were seen escorting three other children out of the home. The boy’s foster parents were reportedly questioned by Sheriff’s deputies.
“I am devastated by the news of the death of a young foster child in Antelope Valley,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes the Antelope Valley, the remote area where Palmdale is located. “We don’t yet know the details of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy or if it was the result of natural causes. The county’s chief medical examiner and law enforcement are diligently working to understand what happened.”
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle expressed his regret at the death, saying that the safety of the county’s two million children is his “highest priority.”
“I am deeply saddened at news of the death of a child in Palmdale who was in the care of a Los Angeles County foster family,” Cagle said in a statement. “The death of a child in our community is heartbreaking and tragic, and I have directed my staff to collaborate with our law enforcement partners as we work to understand what happened.”
More than two weeks later, details about the case remain obscure. The Sheriff’s Department has said it is still conducting an investigation into the cause of Joseph’s death, and the coroner’s office has placed a hold on releasing any information about how the child died until the investigation is concluded.
On Friday, Judge Kim Nguyen closed out Joseph’s DCFS case in her fifth-floor courtroom at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park, even as his death remains under investigation.
Outside the courtroom, a bailiff barred this reporter from entering the court in apparent contravention of case law that allows members of media to observe court proceedings under certain circumstances.
In California, dependency courts are “presumed closed” to outside parties like journalists unless they can provide evidence of a “direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court” and explain how they would prevent harm to the child.
Victor Greenberg, presiding judge at L.A. County’s juvenile court system, refused to provide comment on why a member of the media was prevented from observing the hearing.
The Antelope Valley has endured some of the county’s most heart-rending child deaths in recent years.
The 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was tortured and killed at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, sparked the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which scrutinized how allegations of child maltreatment were reported.
In June 2018, 10-year-old Lancaster boy Anthony Avalos died after suffering significant injuries inflicted by his mother and her boyfriend.
About a year later, 4-year-old Noah Cuatro died under suspicious circumstances after being injured at home. His parents, Jose Maria Cuatro, Jr. and Ursula Elaine Juarez, have been charged with one count each of murder and torture in his death.
Last year, The Chronicle of Social Change reported on how two DCFS social workers were unable to remove Noah from his home, facing pushback from their supervisors months before his death. Supervisor Barger has pledged to recruit more DCFS social workers to the Antelope Valley, which has been seen heavy turnover and high caseloads.
But even with those high-profile child deaths, the region is not the part of L.A. County with the greatest number of children who have been killed by parents after DCFS involvement. (The area of the county representing most of South L.A. has more of those deaths than anywhere else.) But given the small population of the Antelope Valley relative to other parts of L.A. County, an at-risk child is more likely to die in Antelope Valley than anywhere else in the county.
When asked whether the foster home where Joseph had been living at the time of his death had ever been the subject of an investigation for abuse or neglect, DCFS said state laws prohibited the release of such information.
“Were the County Department of Children and Family Services to have received such allegations, the information would not be releasable due to State confidentiality laws,” according to an emailed statement.
The lack of information about how Joseph had died and conditions at his foster home remain a source of concern for some children’s advocates in L.A. County.
“The tragedy of Joseph’s death, and of all the child deaths in our county, is compounded when information is not shared in a way that we can learn from it to better protect children and better serve the children in the county’s care,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents children in L.A. County’s dependency court system. “[W]hen the court closes cases without having received a full report regarding the cause of death an opportunity to learn from the past to the benefit of other children is lost.”
*Article has been updated with comment from DCFS.