Social workers didn’t remove boy from his home despite court order. He later died
Pictured above: Noah Cuatro is seen in an undated photo provided to KTLA by his great-grandmother Eva Hernandez. (KTLA)
This story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 11, 2019
By Garrett Therolf and Alyson Stamos
Los Angeles County caseworkers allowed 4-year-old Noah Cuatro to remain in his parents’ home despite a court order in May — weeks before the Palmdale boy died under what authorities say are suspicious circumstances, according to two sources who have reviewed court documents.
At the time of his death Saturday, Noah remained under active supervision by the county Department of Children and Family Services after at least 13 calls to the child abuse hotline and police from people who said they suspected that the children in the home were being abused, the sources said.
Noah’s parents, Jose and Ursula, called 911 on Friday to say their son had drowned in a pool. L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, however, told reporters the boy’s body had signs of trauma that were not consistent with drowning.
Villanueva also said detectives were interviewing the parents and DCFS caseworkers.
The couple could not be reached for comment. On a GoFundMe page seeking burial funds, Noah’s mother referred to him as “my No No” and said she and his father “love him and truly miss all the memories.”
In 2014, DCFS caseworkers substantiated an allegation that Noah’s mother, Ursula, had fractured the skull of a girl related to her. No criminal charges were filed after the district attorney’s office decided there was insufficient evidence, according to a 2014 letter written by the office and read to The Times by one of the sources.
In 2016, Noah was removed from his parents’ home, and he lived in foster care for two years before being returned to his parents, the sources said.
After their reunification, new reports arrived of suspected abuse.
In February this year, a DCFS caseworker noted that Noah appeared lethargic and withdrawn. Three more referrals arrived in March and April, including a report that Noah appeared at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar with bruises on his back, the sources said.
On May 13, authorities were told that Jose Cuatro had a problem with alcohol and allegedly had kicked his wife and their children while in public, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the case. The person who called authorities said that when Cuatro was drinking, he would sometimes become belligerent and tell Noah’s mother that he doubted the boy was his biological child, the sources said, citing a DCFS record of the call.
The next day, DCFS caseworker Susan Johnson filed a 26-page request for the court to issue an order allowing her department to remove Noah from his parents’ custody, the sources said.
A day later, Superior Court Commissioner Steven E. Ipson issued a 10-page order granting the request, the sources said. These documents are not publicly available because state law requires a lengthy review before releasing the full case files in child fatality cases.
Around the same time, DCFS workers learned of allegations that Noah had been sodomized and had injuries to his rectum, according to a DCFS case file read to The Times by one of the sources. Still, caseworkers did not return Noah to foster care.
At a news conference Tuesday held before information about the DCFS history emerged, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said, “My team and I will be monitoring this case very closely as things unfold to ensure transparency … and accountability — something that Noah deserves.”
Barger’s spokesman was unable to say Wednesday whether there were other removal orders that also had not been executed, and Barger declined an interview request.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday and did not appear at Tuesday’s news conference on the case.
Noah’s maternal great-grandmother Eva Hernandez, 72, said that Noah lived in a number of foster homes during his young life and that she was one of the people DCFS caseworkers approved to care for him.
While she served as Noah’s foster parent, Hernandez said, she facilitated visits by his mother and became increasingly concerned about her granddaughter’s ability to care for him, sometimes calling DCFS caseworkers about her worries.
“‘Grandma,’” she recalled Noah telling her, “‘You can’t let me go. You can’t let me go.’ He’s looking at me, begging me not to let him go, and I had to let him go.”
Still, despite the turmoil, she recalled Noah as having “such character, so much charisma.”
“Anywhere we went,” she said, “he would stop and talk to people. We would be in the market and he would say, ‘My name is Noah, what’s your name?’”
In May, the state auditor, Elaine Howe, issued a blistering report on DCFS’ performance, saying the department was slow to investigate allegations of abuse and left children in unsafe conditions at an alarming rate.
Howe also reported that although the county had extensively studied past child fatality cases — yielding key recommendations that would save lives — Cagle had implemented no reliable process to ensure the recommendations from these reviews were implemented.
Evaluators have noted that the department staffers in the Antelope Valley tend to be less experienced and the cases more numerous and complex.
Outside resources to help troubled families with counseling, housing and substance abuse also are more scarce.
Therolf is a reporter at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Stamos (’20) is a student.