There is no issue more important for government than ensuring the safety of its residents. Having a safe community can be something that is easily taken for granted but is fundamental to our way of life. However, we see that criminal justice laws can have life-or-death implications when government fails to uphold its duty.
Unfortunately, over the past few years, California has been going in the wrong direction when it comes to public safety policy. I see this regularly as the vice chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, which is charged with reviewing legislation on the state’s criminal justice laws.
Time and again, I have seen that protecting victims is overlooked in favor of having sympathy for the perpetrators. In the State Capitol, this mentality results in bad policy and even extends to how we protect children from abuse. Earlier this year, I had a bill that would have improved how law enforcement and child protective services share information on suspected child abuse cases. It was a reasonable proposal that would have helped protect children from falling through the cracks. Despite this, the bill was rejected on a party-line vote.
When lawmakers cannot come together to protect children, something is seriously wrong with our system.
The recent death of 10-year old Lancaster resident Anthony Avalos is a tragic reminder of how real the problem of child abuse is and shows the severity of the repercussions if government fails to protect kids.
Anthony died last month under suspicious circumstances after paramedics found him in his home, not breathing. His body was covered in bruises and he was suffering from full cardiac arrest and traumatic brain injury. He allegedly endured five or six days of torture before he died from his injuries. According to government documents, his home was reported to local child services for investigation 88 times due to allegations of him and his siblings suffering from forced confinement, beatings, starvation and other unspeakable treatment. Some of these allegations were supported by evidence but others were not, and ultimately Anthony was not removed from his home.
How a parent could ever subject their child to this evil treatment is unconscionable and something most people will never understand. It’s a sad reality that we must confront this behavior and protect some children from their own families, but that is what government has a responsibility to do for these kids.
One of the most upsetting aspects of Anthony’s death was that it was similar to another heinous case of child abuse in 2013 that also occurred in Antelope Valley. Gabriel Fernandez, who was just 8 years old, died after suffering recurring abuse from his mother and her boyfriend — both of whom were convicted of first-degree murder earlier this year. Numerous reports were made to authorities in Gabriel’s case but he was still not removed from the home.
The bill I brought forward earlier this year to improve communication between law enforcement and child services was named “Gabriel’s Law” as a tribute to acknowledge that his suffering would lead to positive change to protect future children. Unfortunately, the Legislature’s warped perspectives prevented it from being successful, but I am not going to give up.
As Anthony’s death shows, there are still significant reforms that still must be made both within child services but also within state law. To address the problems in state law, I will be reintroducing Gabriel’s Law and another bill that will be called “Anthony’s Law.”
As tragic as both of these deaths are, I am optimistic we can reform how California deals with cases of child abuse and improve the steps we take to protect children by getting them out of abusive homes.
Children across California are counting on their elected leaders to keep them and their community safe. Even one death is too many. There is no function that is more critical to government than public safety. It’s time for California to remember its responsibilities and work to ensure no child is ever subjected to what Anthony and Gabriel were forced to endure.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey represents the 36th Assembly District, which contains portions of Kern, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, including the communities of Lancaster, Palmdale, Quartz Hill, Acton and parts of Santa Clarita.