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Counselor testified she didn’t report suspected abuse to authorities before Gabriel Fernandez was killed

Pictured above: Gabriel Fernandez (family photo)

This story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 3, 2019

By Garret Therolf

The death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in 2013 was a notorious failure of Los Angeles County’s safety net to protect abused and neglected children. The case prompted criminal charges against four child protective services caseworkers and a deep examination of systemic breakdowns.

Now, the recent death of another boy from alleged abuse is focusing attention on a prominent contractor that is paid millions of dollars by the county for child welfare services.

The agency, Hathaway Sycamores Child and Family Services, and one of its former counselors, Barbara Dixon, provided services to 10-year-old Anthony Avalos following a troubled history in Gabriel’s case, court documents reviewed by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and The Times found.

At a 2017 court hearing, Dixon testified that while at Hathaway she withheld information from the child abuse hotline about Gabriel’s injuries that she felt were suspect. People who work with children are required by law to report suspected abuse to authorities.

Dixon’s counseling visits in Anthony’s home began in February 2015 and ended in January 2016, according to case records.

Anthony’s mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva, have been charged with murder in his June 2018 death. Both have pleaded not guilty.

While working Anthony’s case, Dixon at times offered a positive account of Barron’s parenting and depicted Anthony as a difficult child, the DCFS records show. Social workers cited Dixon’s assessment that Anthony could continue to live at home. The Department of Children and Family Services closed Anthony’s case more than a year before his death.

Dixon and her lawyer, Gina Lacagnina, declined to comment for this article.

At a hearing Wednesday in the criminal case against Barron and Leiva, prosecutor Jonathan Hatami disclosed Dixon’s history in Gabriel’s case to their defense attorneys. Dixon was questioned about her work on the case by DCFS internal affairs investigators and by an investigative grand jury in 2015, Hatami said in court.

Those records are not public but could be obtained by the defense through court motions, he noted.

In 2017, Dixon testified at a preliminary hearing for the four case workers who have been charged with child abuse and falsification of records for their alleged misconduct in Gabriel’s case. The testimony followed negotiations with Los Angeles County prosecutors who offered her immunity from prosecution related to her testimony. That case is still ongoing.

Dixon testified that during her 2013 sessions, she went to Gabriel’s home and found him limping, with a black eye, scrapes across his face and bruising on his wrists and ankles. She said she initially believed the family’s story that he fell from a bike. But after going on a walk and speaking with Gabriel, she came to doubt that account, she testified.

Dixon testified that her boss at Hathaway, Michael Bailey, did not want her to report the abuse. Dixon added that she complied. Child abuse investigators never learned about the injuries she saw while he was alive, DCFS records show. Dixon also testified that her supervisors at Hathaway told her not to cooperate with police investigating his death. Bailey did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Dixon testified that she did report an earlier allegation of possible sexual abuse by a person outside the home, and the investigation of that information was still pending when Gabriel was killed.

During his argument, Hagop Kuyumjian, an attorney for one of the case workers, Kevin Bom, said Dixon’s action’s left his client hamstrung in his efforts to protect Gabriel because he was unable to ever learn all she knew.

“Bom could not have predicted … an in-home counselor like Ms. Dixon would knowingly fail to report signs of abuse,” Kuyumjian said. A trial in the case of Bom and the other three case workers is expected later this year.

Los Angeles County officials continued to enlist Hathaway Sycamores and Dixon for counseling services, according to DCFS records. Hathaway Sycamores is one of the county’s largest contractors, receiving $467 million over the past decade. The non-profit provides mental health, foster care, adoption and other services throughout the county.

Following Gabriel’s death, the Board of Supervisors increased payments to the agency, according to records from the Auditor-Controller. In 2013, the contractor earned $45.1 million from county taxpayers. Last year, the figure was $50.8 million.

County officials have declined to publicly address Hathaway’s role in the two cases of Gabriel and Anthony. The blue ribbon commission convened in the wake of Gabriel’s death did not examine Hathaway Sycamores and Dixon in its final report. An internal county review of Anthony’s death also did not mention them.

DCFS Director Bobby Cagle declined to be interviewed about Anthony’s case. He said he was not able to directly address questions about an outside contractor. Office of Child Protection Director Michael Nash, who led the county’s review of Anthony’s death, said he read limited excerpts of the Hathaway records but not Dixon’s notes. He also did not examine whether their handling of Gabriel’s case affected the county’s decision to continue using the firm.

Dixon is licensed as a marriage and family therapist by the state Board of Behavioral Sciences with no record of discipline. At the time she was assigned to Gabriel, she was approved by the board as a marriage and family therapist intern.

Hathaway’s chief executive, Debbie Manners, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a brief email she offered no direct response to a transcript of Dixon’s testimony. She also said that her agency was in full compliance with California’s mandated reporting requirements and that administrators train employees on their responsibilities to report suspected abuse.

“The reporting statute specifically lists that individuals (not entities) are mandated reporters,” Manners wrote.

Dixon testified that Hathaway Sycamores trainers instructed her that she could not make a call to the child abuse hotline without the authorization of a supervisor.

In 2016, Dixon left Hathaway Sycamores to join the Children’s Bureau, another DCFS contractor.

Ronald Brown, the Children’s Bureau’s chief executive, said “she is still employed” but would not detail her responsibilities or whether she continued to work directly with children under the supervision of DCFS.

“That’s a personnel issue,” he said, “and I wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss that.”

Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, were convicted of first-degree murder in his torture death. Aguirre was sentenced to be executed and Fernandez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Garrett Therolf is a reporter at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Times staff writer Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.

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