Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Palmdale 4-Year-Old Who Died Under Suspicious Circumstances Could Have Been Removed From Parents' Custody

A boy who died Saturday under suspicious circumstances in Palmdale could have been removed from the custody of his parents in May, the NBCLA I-Team has learned. 

Two sources familiar with the case of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro say a judge granted a removal request from an LA County Department of Children and Family Social worker, but it was not immediately clear why the order was never carried out. The NBCLA I-Team is looking into why the order was not enforced.

Noah was pronounced dead on July 6 after his parents, Jose and Ursula, called 911 to report that he had drowned in the community pool at the apartment complex where the family lived on East Avenue S in Palmdale. An autopsy is pending, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff.

The child was taken first to Palmdale Regional Medical Center and then to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

"Once the child was transported to a local hospital, there was some trauma found on the body that was inconsistent with a drowning," Los Angeles Sheriff Lt. Joe Mendoza, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

The boy was pronounced dead on Saturday morning, but the cause of death was not disclosed.

Noah's parents were questioned, but not arrested and his siblings were taken into protective custody, Mendoza said. 

A spokesperson for DCFS says due to privacy restrictions they cannot confirm or deny a removal, telling NBCLA they have filed documents asking the court to allow them to disclose additional information. NBCLA has also requested documents under Senate Bill 39 which " ... permits the juvenile case files that pertain to a deceased child who was within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, as provided, to be released to the public after a petition has been filed and interested parties have been afforded an opportunity to file an objection, subject to certain limitations." 

"We join with the community in expressing our deep sadness over the tragic death of this child," Bobby Cagle, DCFS Director, said in a statement.

There were previous reports to the Department of Children and Family Services regarding the boy, but specifics of the reports were not revealed.

"At this point, we're retrieving the case file as we speak, we're going to be reviewing that case file and we'll have more information in the next coming days," Mendoza said.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles District Attorney confirms in 2014 a case was presented to their office, involving Ursula, Noah’s mother, for charges of child abuse under circumstances to cause great bodily injury or death. It is not clear which child was involved in this case. It was declined due to lack of sufficient evidence and no charges were filed. 

NBCLA spoke with Noah's great-grandmother Gloria Ruiz on Wednesday. She says that the boy's family lived with her in North Hills shortly before moving to Palmdale. Neighbors in Palmdale say the family moved to that city about a month ago.

Ruiz says Noah was a sweet and happy boy who loved Spiderman. She says she doesn't know what happened to Noah and is hoping the parents were not responsible.

Efforts to reach Noah's parents for comment have not been answered.

Michelle Thompson says Noah came to live with her as a toddler and was a sweet boy and a beautiful joy. She cofounded Bithiah’s House, a short term residential treatment center for infants and toddlers in the foster care system. She says children who come to her are medically fragile or have specialized needs.

"He hit so many milestones while he was at the house," Thompson said. "It’s just a horrible, horrible ending that didn’t need to happen," she added.

From her home, Noah was moved to another foster family and at some point, back to his biological parents.

Noah is at least the third death of a child with connections to the county Department of Children and Family Services in the Antelope Valley since 2013. The death of Gabriel Fernandez led to a countywide investigation, a blue ribbon commission and changes within the department. Gabriel's mother, Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, were convicted of murder.

In 2018, Anthony Avalos is believed to have been tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend. Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva currently face murder charges in connection with his death. There had been 13 contacts between Avalos and DCFS from 2013 to 2016, including a substantiated sexual abuse incident, according to a report by the Office of Child Protection. At least 12 social workers were involved in looking into his case, according to the report. 

In May, a state audit found " ... the department has unnecessarily risked the health and safety of children in its care." The audit also said while the department conducts robust reviews after the death of a child it " ... does not have a mechanism to ensure it consistently implements recommendations resulting from these reviews." 

New training for social workers as well as other reforms are happening, according to DCFS. A detailed response from DCFS about how the department will implement recommendations established by the audit is expected in two weeks.

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