L.A. County to investigate alleged abuse of 4-year-old by his foster mother

·3 min read

The Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection will investigate the alleged abuse of a 4-year-old boy in Norwalk by his foster mother, the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday.

The foster mother, 26-year-old Gabriela Casarez of Norwalk, was arrested Oct. 29 and has pleaded not guilty to two counts of child abuse and one count of assault leading to coma or paralysis after the boy, identified as Andres F., was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.

The investigation will focus on the handling of the case by the Department of Children and Family Services and other county agencies, including the experience level of social workers and how they addressed language and cultural barriers.

The Office of Child Protection was created in 2015 after public outcry over the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, whose mother and her boyfriend were convicted of torturing and murdering him. The office is independent of DCFS, reports directly to the supervisors and plays an oversight role, reviewing child deaths, recommending policy changes and encouraging collaboration among agencies.

It remains unclear why the Norwalk boy was placed in Casarez's care.

The boy and his birth mother speak an Indigenous Guatemalan language, and social workers failed to effectively communicate with the birth mother before removing the boy, raising questions about whether a language barrier contributed to his removal, his aunt said in an interview Nov. 4 with independent journalist Alberto Godinez.

"This is a good time to reimagine what it really does mean to protect a child in L.A. County," said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who authored the motion calling for the investigation.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said the tragedy "probably could have been prevented had we done a better job of assessing the young child and really understanding his cultural and linguistic abilities and our lack in terms of staff understanding what that meant."

In a statement Tuesday, DCFS said it "welcomes the involvement" of the Office of Child Protection.

"They are an important part of the checks and balances system for child welfare in Los Angeles County and their examination of our practices and protocols may lead to impactful changes that enhance safety and service delivery," the statement said.

Indigenous families from Latin America have repeatedly been harmed by the county's child welfare system, said Odilia Romero, co-founder and executive director of Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, which provides translators for Indigenous languages.

Too often, Indigenous speakers are given Spanish translators, who misunderstand and misrepresent them in child welfare cases and other situations, Romero said.

Romero's organization has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department to develop language cards to identify Indigenous languages and provide translation help. She would like to see similar efforts with county agencies.

This is "not the first child or the last" who may have been removed from family in part because of a language barrier, she said, blaming the county's "reluctance to admit that Indigenous people from south of the border live and exist in L.A. County."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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