The family of Anthony Avalos, a 10-year-old Lancaster boy who prosecutors say died of child abuse and torture by his mother and her boyfriend, has reached a tentative $32-million settlement with Los Angeles County.
Lawyers for three of Anthony’s siblings and his father confirmed the amount of the settlement on Wednesday. The final settlement requires formal approval by the county’s five-member Board of Supervisors, but the tentative agreement for such a massive sum indicates a majority of the board is expected to approve the payout.
Brian Claypool, one of the lead attorneys representing Anthony’s relatives, said the landmark agreement was reached just days before a trial was set to begin in Los Angeles that would have spotlighted lapses by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services.
“Money will not bring back Anthony Avalos, but it will bring change,” Claypool said in an interview. “It will force DCFS to better safeguard these kids.”
“L.A. County taxpayers are not going to continue to foot the bill on $32-million settlements,” he added. “People in this community are going to be outraged at this and start electing different political officials — unless the board takes a more active role in exacting change within DCFS.”
A spokesperson for DCFS declined to comment.
The settlement will resolve claims from Victor Avalos — Anthony’s father — and three of his siblings, who their lawyers say also endured abuse at the hands of their mother and her boyfriend.
The mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, were indicted by a grand jury in 2018 on charges that they murdered and tortured Anthony and abused two of his siblings in the household.
Barron and Leiva are being held without bail. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors said the couple poured hot sauce on Anthony’s face and mouth, whipped the boy with a looped cord and belt, and held him upside down and repeatedly dropped him on his head. They also alleged the couple alternately withheld food and force-fed him, slammed him into furniture and the floor, denied him access to the bathroom, and enlisted other children in the home to inflict pain on him.
Anthony had been sporadically under DCFS’ supervision from 2013 to 2017, more than a year before his death, according to records reviewed by The Times and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. More than a dozen calls were made to the county’s child abuse hotline about Anthony’s welfare — from teachers, counselors, family and police.
One call in 2015 came from the vice principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Lancaster, who relayed that Anthony reported his mother beating him, locking him in a room with no access to food, and subjecting him to squatting for long periods of time with his arms stretched out, a punishment dubbed “the captain’s chair.”
Anthony and his siblings also told their uncle about being locked in a room, facing “the captain’s chair,” and getting whipped by a belt. At one point, the uncle physically blocked Anthony’s mom from picking up her children, which prompted a visit from L.A. County sheriff’s deputies. A deputy who responded to the scene also phoned the child abuse hotline and recommended Anthony and his siblings not go home with their mother.
Yet Anthony was allowed to return to live with his mother that year. He remained with her despite successive hotline calls, including one from an employee at a domestic violence program who reported Anthony and his siblings had bruises and recounted that Leiva had forced them to fight one another.
In June 18, 2018, Anthony confided to his mom that he liked boys, records show. Barron told a DCFS caseworker that Leiva heard that conversation. The next night, Leiva repeatedly dropped Anthony on his head, according to grand jury transcripts. Around noon on June 20, Anthony’s mother dialed 911, and he was taken to a hospital in grave condition, where he died the following day.
The lawsuit filed in the wake of Anthony’s death accused DCFS and one of its contractors, Pasadena-based Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, of disregarding concerns about abuse and failing to protect Anthony.
Now known as Sycamores, the organization began providing in-home therapy to Anthony in early 2015, records show. One of Sycamores’ counselors, Barbara Dixon, was later faulted by state regulators for how she handled Anthony’s case.
The state alleged that Dixon learned from Anthony that a relative had sexually abused him, and there was no indication from her notes that she had reported the suspected abuse.
Later that year, Dixon noted allegations from Anthony’s uncle that his mother was abusing him and his siblings, but there was no record that she had discussed this with DCFS.
Sycamores is not included in the tentative settlement. A trial involving claims against the nonprofit is scheduled to begin in September.
Garrett Therolf, a former Times staff writer now at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, contributed to this report.