On Sept. 11, I visited the wood-paneled offices of Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger for a wide-ranging discussion about the state of child welfare in the county and her district.
Adding to the doleful sentiment of this were new revelations regarding the latest high profile child tragedy to strike the county: the still mysterious July death of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro.
Just hours before I sat down at a long conference table with Barger and two members of her staff, a top county official had released a report essentially absolving the county’s Department of Children and Family Services of any wrongdoing in the young boy’s death. While the release of the report, authored by Michael Nash, who long ran the juvenile court and now leads the county Office of Child Protection, should have tamped down the controversy surrounding the deceased boy, new questions continue to emerge.
Barger, whose district has the ignoble distinction of being the site of at least three high-profile child deaths in recent years including Noah’s, has taken a lead role on the Board of Supervisors in pushing for reforms and accountability across the agencies that serve children and families. Notably, she authored a motion aimed at recruiting and retaining social workers in the Antelope Valley, a high desert, exurban swathe of the county where, as Barger says, people go to “disappear,” and children die at a disproportionately high rate.
In this interview, I query her on a wide range of topics surrounding Noah’s case, her confidence in the leaders charged with protecting children and her plans to make things better. My questions and her responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Judge Nash’s report came out just today. It centered on whether or not the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) was right in not executing a warrant to remove Noah from his home less than two months before the boy died. What is your reaction?
With this court order, Nash felt that it was appropriate not to take Noah out of the home.
And he was on the bench. Based on his area of expertise in this situation, he felt that that was the right move.
Now, we can all disagree because the outcome is that we’ve got a child who is no longer here. And so I want Judge Nash – and we talked about it, and we’re gonna dig more into that – [to explain] how he came up with that conclusion ’cause, I’m not going to lie to you, I can’t connect those dots just based on what I read. But I’m not on the bench, so I don’t understand how from a legal standpoint you come up with that. If a judge signs it, do it, in my opinion.
Judge Nash concluded that the judicial officer in this case was right to sign the removal order because that judicial officer had assumed the investigation was carried out. How does that strike you?
Right. But based on the fact that it was included in there tells me there was a suspicion. And I get it, Judge Nash is looking at it from the purest standpoint, and that is there were things in there that were investigated that were unfounded, and then there were things in there that were suspected but not investigated. But the fact that those were in there, if the judge signed it, in a way it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission in some situations, and erring on the side of the child for me is first and foremost.
But for reasons which Judge Nash feels were right, they chose to wait and build more on the case, and it may have to do with the fact there were things in there that had not been investigated, and that’s kind of where the fork in the road lies.
As it relates to when I talk to Nash, I just am trying to understand why your initial reaction wouldn’t be to just take the child, and he said, it would not have been the right thing to do.
And I think you and I agree on the fact that it’s counterintuitive, right? You know what I mean? Even if Noah were still here, if we were taking a random case where the child right now is thriving with an aunt in Orange County, and we happen to pull a case where this type of thing happened, I would still say they did the right thing by taking the child out. Or if they didn’t take the child out, and we reviewed the case, this case, I would say, they should’ve taken the child out, because to me I just cannot from a logic standpoint understand it, and yet from a legal standpoint Judge Nash feels it was the right decision to make.
Ultimately what Judge Nash did was make a judgment on the evidence he had before him. But does that in any way miss an opportunity for increased accountability for the Department of Children and Family Services?
No, I don’t think so.
I cannot second guess Judge Nash because I’ve never sat on the bench. I’ve never gone to law school.
The Times story recently about Anthony’s case insinuated pretty strongly that the OCP’s report on his death was insufficient and relied exclusively on information provided by DCFS. Did you think that assessment was fair?
No, absolutely not. And you will notice that I was not quoted in that article. I think that was an unfair assessment. And with all due respect to [reporter] Garrett [Therolf], Judge Nash provided an opportunity for Garrett to put his questions in writing, and then Judge Nash was gonna respond in writing. And because that was not sufficient for Garrett, he can come to his own conclusions.
The L.A. Times/Garrett, we can respectfully disagree. Is this a tragedy? Absolutely. I’m not gonna make any excuses, Daniel, not going to. And I’m not gonna make this a political issue because, as far as I’m concerned, the politics itself is a whole other issue. This is about serving the people and serving the families. And I said at the board meeting, the buck stops with all of us that sit up there as electeds.
But I looked at the department heads and I said, but you know what? It stops with you too. We’re responsible, and now as someone who’s responsible, I’m gonna hold you responsible. You don’t get it done – and I said it – you will publicly be brought before this board each week, and I will pepper you with questions as to what’s not getting done. And it’s amazing. The incentive bonuses, like that. I snapped my fingers. Like that. And that’s in part because they knew, party’s over.
What would you like the next step to be on Noah’s case?
Well, the next step for me is – and I don’t know if you followed the board meeting when we first had this happen. I’m angry, and I’m angry at the fact that in this county, we get reports. I’m tired of asking for reports, and then they get put on a shelf.
It doesn’t take Einstein to know that recruitment’s an issue up there [in the Antelope Valley]. Turnover’s an issue up there. Continuity of the social worker’s an issue up there. Why aren’t we, we collectively, DCFS, human resources, looking at what is going on?
Why aren’t we aggressively pursuing training social workers that come from the community? And I’ll tell you why that’s important to the Antelope Valley, and I have nothing to support this, but anecdotally, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, the Antelope Valley is the perfect place to go and disappear.
It’s the perfect place to go disappear because it’s very rural, and you can be very isolated. So, you want people who come from the community that understand the complexities of the Antelope Valley.
The Sheriff’s Department investigation of Noah’s death is more than two months old. Is that acceptable?
What part? I mean, we’ve made changes. I mean, when I tell you things have taken place, they have. But understand there’s a criminal investigation that’s still going on, which in many ways creates an issue, and I don’t want to compromise any criminal case for any situation.
As an elected, that would be foolish, and that would be irresponsible. But as it relates to real time, we have taken swift action.
So, you and Sheriff Alex Villanueva gave a press conference shortly after Noah died. The investigation hasn’t yielded anything publicly. We don’t know anything. Do you have confidence in the sheriff in regards …
Absolutely. I mean, you don’t even have to finish the question on that. Their bureau – their homicide bureau is the best of the best. You’ve got detectives in that unit who treat each case as though it was their own family. So, I have all the confidence that they’re going to do a thorough investigation.
Since Bobby Cagle became DCFS director nearly two years ago, we have seen the agency escalate its response to alleged child abuse. While the volume of calls increased only slightly from 2017 to 2018, the number of petitions DCFS filed with the Dependency Court to detain children went up from 11,803 to 13,790. The agency has already filed 8,522 new petitions in 2019, suggesting the numbers will go up even higher this year. What does this mean to you that you’re seeing this increase in petitions to the court?
I believe that social workers are scared, and they’re gonna err on the side of removal in many cases given the fact that the filing against the social workers on criminal charges [stemming from the preventable 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez] has sent a chilling effect throughout the department.
Anecdotally, it’s been told to me that social workers’ attitudes are, ‘I’ll take them out and then figure it out later.’ I’m oversimplifying, but I think you get what I mean, Daniel, as it relates to keeping a child in the home, not having a chance to do a full investigation, and then something happens to that child. So, a social worker says, you know what? There’s probable cause. There’s enough. I’m gonna remove.
What is your responsibility given the trauma associated with removals? How do you calm nerves from your position? What would you say to social workers right now if you were in front of them all?
Well, it’s not what I’m saying. It’s not even words. Words are cheap, and action is really what needs to be done, and that’s what I’m doing.
I’m saying, ‘you know what? The situation up in the Antelope Valley in Lancaster and Palmdale offices with the retention and the caseload is unacceptable.’
We need to show them that we support them and that we will listen. These social workers need to know that they are supported. And I do support them. And by the way, they also want quality social workers. So, don’t think that they sit back and accept mediocracy as it relates to the work they do, because they don’t. And I’ve met with social workers not only in the Antelope Valley, but throughout my district. And I have to tell you, many of them feel as though especially the press is always looking for the ‘I got ya.’
They feel like they’re always looking for that next sensational case or story. And each one of them can tell you horror stories that never make the papers, but where they made a difference and saved a child’s life, but that doesn’t sell newspapers.
DCFS Director Cagle has weathered now two high-profile child deaths in the Antelope Valley at least, Anthony [Avalos] and now Noah, and there are others that didn’t get the same kind of L.A. Times treatment. Are you pleased with how he’s been dealing with these and other issues?
Am I pleased? Yeah, I mean, I think Bobby is a good director.
What I told Bobby at the board meeting when we were talking about Noah is, if there are things not being done, and then I find out that you have been frustrated because the bureaucracy hasn’t addressed it, and you’re not bringing it to our attention, and it was a board directive to do it, it’s going to be on you because you knew, and you didn’t do anything about it. That doesn’t mean you come and tattle every time.
But if it’s been eight months, and you’ve been – and in this case the bonuses up in the Antelope Valley was the example. And it’s been studied, and we all know what needs to be done, but you can’t get any action, you can’t get any tread, you have an obligation to come to us and tell us about what’s going on.
And so he heard that loud and clear, and he needs to be more aggressive. He needs to say, ‘look, the buck stops with me, and I have the board’s support on the actions I’m taking. If you are not with me and getting it done, get out of the way.’
And Bobby heard that loud and clear. And the actions that we’ve taken up in the Antelope Valley are an indication to me that he heard me loud and clear.
I mean, we are moving mountains right now in lightning speed. And it shouldn’t have taken a public undressing to make that happen, but either way it’s getting done.