A 10-year-old boy may have come out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are investigating whether homophobia played a role in his death, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the agency's deputy director said that Anthony Avalos "said he liked boys," but Nichols declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when. The department confirmed the report to NBC4 Tuesday morning.
Anthony's aunt, Maria Barron, told the Times it would have taken great courage for Anthony to have announced he was gay in the home and "only reinforces how brave Anthony was." The aunt said she began alerting DCFS in 2015, when she noticed bruises and other injuries.
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Nichols said the criminal investigation is ongoing. Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies responded to a 911 call from the boy's mother about 12:15 p.m. Wednesday and found him unresponsive inside his family's apartment.
Investigators said they were told the boy had suffered injuries from a fall. He died at a hospital Thursday morning, and investigators classified the death as "suspicious."
The coroner's office has placed a security hold on the case and no arrests have been made, according to the Sheriff's Information Bureau.
Calling the death a "senseless murder," a Los Angeles County supervisor asked for a review of all county contacts with the boy's family, seeking an answer to why he was not removed from his home despite repeated complaints to the Department of Children and Family Services that he was being abused. The review of the case's handling, almost certain to be approved by the board, will involve the Office of Child Protection, law enforcement and the Department of Children and Family Services. The group will evaluate staffing, supervision and collaboration, or the lack thereof, between social workers and law enforcement officers in child abuse and neglect referrals.
The Office of Child Protection was established to transform the child welfare system in response to the 2013 murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale. Gabriel was long tortured and ultimately beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend despite numerous previous reports of abuse to DCFS.
Like Gabriel, Anthony, was the subject of severe abuse allegations, including not being fed, being locked up and suffering physical and sexual abuse, the DCFS told NBC4. Anthony died with serious head injuries, cigarette burns covering his body, the newspaper reported. Prosecutors said the boyfriend of Gabriel's mother became enraged because he thought the child was gay.
"The county is suffering a senseless murder of an innocent child, allegedly at the hands of someone inside the home, while law enforcement, social workers and family preservation workers all interacted with the family," said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose motion will be considered at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting. "We need to identify how our previous efforts to enhance and expand services and integrate county partners have succeeded, and determine where there are continual gaps and barriers."
The head of the Department of Children and Family Services said the agency will work with law enforcement to determine what led to Anthony's death.
"In each and every one of these cases, what we do is take a deep dive into the case, try to understand the best we can what was going on there," said DCFS director Bobby Cagle. "What kind of services were provided? Were they adequate? Should we have done something differently."
Four DCFS officials facing trial over Gabriel Fernandez's death are due in court for a pretrial hearing. Gabriel's mother was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison without the possibility of parole and her boyfriend was sentenced to death.