PALMDALE, Calif. — A 4-year-old California boy who reportedly begged not to live with his parents was allowed to remain in their home despite a court order to remove him. Noah Cuatro died weeks later under suspicious circumstances.
His parents, Jose and Ursula Cuatro, are now under investigation in his death, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a news conference Tuesday that deputies received a call around 4 p.m. on July 5 about a child drowning in a community pool at their apartment complex in Palmdale.
"Paramedics did lifesaving measures, transported the child to Palmdale Regional Center, and the child was ultimately transferred to Children's Hospital in L.A., where he was subsequently pronounced dead," Villanueva said.
Noah died early Saturday morning.
Lt. Joe Mendoza, one of the investigators on the case, said that, upon Noah’s arrival at the hospital, trauma was observed on his body that was inconsistent with drowning. The department’s Special Victims Bureau was called in to investigate.
"We're beginning a very exhaustive, lengthy investigation to find out what happened with the tragic, untimely passing of baby Noah," Villanueva said.
Noah's siblings, who family members told KTLA in Los Angeles include an older brother, a 2-year-old sister and a 1-month-old brother, have been taken into protective custody.
Mendoza said investigators were in the process of compiling all of Noah’s records from his involvement with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Los Angeles County’s 5th Supervisorial District, called Noah’s death heartbreaking.
"I see this as an open criminal investigation and I am eager to see what results (from) the investigation by law enforcement and what appropriate criminal charges may follow," Barger said. "These and other facts gathered by the county will inform us of our next steps."
Barger said she and her staff would be monitoring the investigation closely to ensure the transparency and accountability she said Noah deserves.
Watch the news conference with Los Angeles County officials below.
The Times reported that Noah, at the time of his death, was under active supervision by DCFS workers. The supervision stemmed from at least 13 calls over the years to both the agency's child abuse hotline and local police officials, all reporting suspected abuse of Noah and his siblings.
Child welfare workers in 2014 substantiated an allegation that Noah’s mother fractured the skull of a female child related to her, the Times said. No criminal charges were ever filed.
Noah was removed from the home in 2016 and remained in foster care for two years before being returned to his parents, the newspaper reported.
"Although reunification of a child with his parents is our ultimate goal when we have foster children, sadly, there are times when reunification is not viable for a variety of reasons," Barger said.
Noah spent time in multiple foster homes, including Bithiah's House, a residential treatment center for chilren in foster care who also need medical care. Michelle Thompson, a co-founder of the facility, told ABC 7 in Los Angeles she remembers Noah well.
The then-2-year-old boy was malnourished and could not walk when he arrived. By the time he left seven months later, he was thriving, she said.
He was such a joy," Thompson told the news station. "He had this crazy wild brown hair and he was so joyful."
Noah's great-grandmother, Eva Hernandez, also served as a foster parent for Noah before he was sent back to his parents. Hernandez told KTLA when social workers sought in November to return the boy to his parents, he begged not to go.
"I told the social workers, 'Please, he doesn't want to leave. He wants to stay here. He begged me,'" Hernandez, 72, told the news station. "He would hold on to me and say, 'Don't send me back, Grandma.' I don't know. I couldn't do anything. I just had to send him back."
Hernandez said Noah’s parents kept him away from her until about three months ago, when she saw him one last time before he died. She told KTLA she sensed her great-grandson wanted to confide in her but couldn’t because his mother was in the room.
"He would say, 'Grandma,' then he would just shut down. I kept saying, 'What's wrong? Tell me, baby,' and he wouldn't say it," Hernandez said. "He was not the same little boy anymore. He looked so sad and withdrawn."
More reports of suspected abuse came after Noah was returned home, the Times reported. A caseworker who saw the boy in February noted that he was lethargic and withdrawn, the newspaper said.
Caseworkers received three additional referrals in March and April. In one instance, Noah was seen at a hospital in Sylmar with bruises on his back, the Times said.
Sources told the newspaper a May 13 call alerted caseworkers that Jose Cuatro had a drinking problem and had been seen kicking his wife and children in public. The caller said Cuatro, when drunk, would express doubt that Noah was his son.
A caseworker filed a request with the court the next day seeking an order to remove Noah from the home. A judge granted the request May 15, the Times reported.
Despite the order, and despite allegations that Noah had been sodomized while in his parents’ care, the boy remained in the home, according to the paper.
Barger, who spoke at the news conference before the Times' report detailing DCFS' alleged failings in Noah's case, declined an interview request after the report was published, the newspaper said.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Barger said Noah’s case, like most that rise to city officials’ attention, was a complex one. She pointed out that she stood before the public last year in a similar situation, in which a child’s life was cut short.
"We are here again. It is a chilling reminder that government alone cannot do this," Barger said.
She urged everyone, from families to civic leaders, to get involved in the fight to keep children safe.
"Child welfare is a shared responsibility," Barger said.
KTLA reported that Noah's death is the third high-profile child death in recent years in the Antelope Valley in which the child died in a home where he had been placed by DCFS. Gabriel Fernandez, 8, was tortured and killed in 2013 in a slaying a judge described as "worse than animalistic, (because) even animals know how to take care of their young," the news station said.
Gabriel was hospitalized with a fractured skull and broken ribs and had BB pellets in his lung and groin, KTLA reported. He died two days later.
Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, has been sentenced to life in prison and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, is on death row.
In the Anthony Avalos case, the 10-year-old’s mother and her boyfriend face capital murder charges in his June 2018 torture and death.
Authorities allege Anthony was starved and then force-fed, had hot sauce poured on his face and mouth, was hit with a cord and belt and was held upside down repeatedly before being dropped on his head, KTLA said.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said Wednesday he could not go into detail about Noah’s history with the agency due to privacy restrictions. He did offer his condolences in a statement to the news station.
"We join with the community in expressing our deep sadness over the tragic death of this child," Cagle said, according to KTLA.
Hernandez told the Times that Noah was a sweet boy with "such character, so much charisma."
"Anywhere we went, he would stop and talk to people," Hernandez said. "We would be in the market and he would say, 'My name is Noah. What's your name?'"
She lamented the fact that Noah’s own desperate wishes for a safe home were not heeded.
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