The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to have the Office of Child Protection investigate the circumstances of a 4-year-old boy who was allegedly tortured and beaten by his foster mother, leaving the boy in a coma.
Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents Norwalk, where the boy was living, called for the probe shortly after the boy's extended family went public with his story.
"If these allegations are true, we put him in the care of an abusive foster mother who hurt him so severely he had to be hospitalized,'' Hahn told her colleagues during a virtual meeting Tuesday. "We not only need to know how this was possible ... but we also need to question why he was removed from his mother in the first place.''
Get Southern California news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC LA newsletters.
Both Hahn and Supervisor Hilda Solis suggested that language or cultural barriers may have played a role in social workers' decision to remove the boy from his family.
"It's really tragic what happened to this little boy and probably could have been avoided had we done a better job of assessing the young child and really understanding his cultural and linguistic abilities,'' Solis said.
The motion also directs the Department of Children and Family Services to assess the experience and tenure of the social workers involved, as well as to review the department's policies and training on forensic evaluation and referrals to medical care.
Several residents and activists told the board the child welfare system needs to be changed.
Chris Martin, a co-leader of the Reimagine Child Safety Coalition and a lawyer who has represented parents seeking to maintain custody of their children, said DCFS policies target and harm Black, brown and Indigenous families. The coalition estimates that 40% of foster children are Black, far out of proportion to the 9% of county residents who are Black.
"I've personally seen DCFS unnecessarily ruin the lives of countless families,'' Martin said. "Some of these parents have gotten their kids taken away because they smoke marijuana. Others because they are victims of domestic violence (who reached out to the police).''
Martin also said children should not be separated from their parents simply because the parents use or have used drugs.
"A drug test is not a parenting test,'' Martin said. "The sad thing here is that a number of these kids are going to go into homes where they are even more traumatized by foster parents.''
Martin urged the board to review the coalition's demands, which include a call to end the "partnership'' between the DCFS and law enforcement.
The group says about 25% of DCFS calls originate with law enforcement, and social workers work together with police or sheriff's deputies to enter homes and remove children, a practice they say further traumatizes kids.
Both Hahn and Solis expressed interest in the coalition's ideas.
"We do have to reimagine what the services look like because it is dysfunctional,'' Solis said.
The L.A. County Sheriff's Department confirmed last week that the boy's foster mother, Gabriela Casarez, was arrested Oct. 29 on suspicion of child abuse, one day after the Special Victims Bureau was called to a location in the 14700 block of Pioneer Boulevard in Norwalk.
The boy -- identified as Andres F. in a criminal complaint filed against his foster mother -- sustained "grave injuries'' and was admitted to an intensive care unit. An update on his status was not available Tuesday, although Hahn said she was continuing to pray for his recovery.
Casarez pleaded not guilty to three felony counts -- two counts of child abuse likely to cause great bodily injury or death and one count of assault on a child becoming comatose, according to court records.
Last Monday, the boy's aunt came forward to say his extended family is struggling to get more information on what happened, and has been barred from visiting the boy.
The aunt, Maria Jacinto, spoke out during a news conference that morning, standing alongside lawyer Michael Adler.
"They don't deserve this at all. No kid deserves this, in any care, under anybody's care,'' Jacinto said. "We're just asking for justice ... and information.''
Jacinto appeared to be referencing both Andres F. and his 2-year-old brother, Emiliano, who is also reportedly in foster care.
Adler said Andres was in the care of his foster family when he was severely beaten.
"We have no evidence that ... he was with anyone other than this foster family, and there's clear evidence that he was tortured and beaten into a coma,'' Adler said.
The criminal complaint against Casarez names Emiliano F. as a second victim of abuse likely to cause great bodily injury or death. In the case of both Andres and Emiliano, the complaint cites the date of abuse as occurring on or between June 4 and Oct. 28.
Casarez is being held in lieu of $1.2 million bail and is due back in court Dec. 6, according to court records and the LASD.
The DCFS issued a statement last week saying that confidentiality protects children and families and prohibits the release of specific information. But the department defended the process of choosing foster families.
"Licensure of resource families involves rigorously examining the suitability of potential families to identify safe, nurturing and supportive homes for children in foster care,'' the statement read in part.
The DCFS oversees the care of approximately 32,000 children countywide. A report on the investigation is expected back in 45 days.