PALMDALE — Four-year-old Noah Cuatro loved Spiderman, ponies, and the animated children series PJ Masks. He was also excited about going to school.
The Palmdale boy died July 6 under what authorities deemed suspicious circumstances while in the custody of his parents, Ursula Juarez and Jose Cuatro, who said that Noah nearly drowned in a pool.
Community activists gathered near the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services office on Sierra Highway in Palmdale Friday afternoon to demand justice for Noah.
“We now know that’s a lie according to a number of experts,” Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, an L.A.-based civil rights organization, said in reference to the report Noah drowned. “That child had trauma to his body, according to the medical experts. So now we believe he was murdered, but also the child was sexually assaulted.”
Authorities were called about 4 p.m. July 5 to the family’s home in the 1200 block of East Avenue S and Noah’s parents said the boy nearly drowned in the family’s pool, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said. The boy was taken to Palmdale Regional Medical Center, then transferred to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he was pronounced dead the morning of July 6. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Noah’s parents were questioned but not arrested and his siblings were taken into protective custody, sheriff’s Lt. Joe Mendoza said.
Noah was reportedly under the supervision of the Department of Children and Family Services at the time of his death. Ali called for the Department of Children and Family Services to be held accountable for Noah’s death.
Ali called for the arrest and prosecution of the social workers and Noah’s parents involved in the 4-year-old’s death under their care. He cited a Los Angeles Times report that said there were 14 complaints of abuse in regard to Noah.
“For whatever reason the social workers ignored them. They also returned baby Noah to the care of the parents in defiance of a judge’s order,” Ali said, citing the Times report. “This is unbelievable. How can social workers return a child who was in a safe space with his grandmother being loved and protected and take them out of her care and take them to the very parents who were brutalizing baby Noah, the very parents who had 14 complaints against them already.”
Miguel Coronado, of the Agents of Change student organization, said it is up to the adults to speak up for children.
“We are their advocates,” said Coronado, a former foster youth. “I know the trauma that kids experience when they live in a broken home. When they live in poverty. When they deal with mental, emotional, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. If we don’t stand up for our children who will stand up for children.”
“I appreciate that people are covering this and getting the word out,” said Maggie Hernandez, Noah’s great-aunt, the sister of Noah’s maternal grandfather.
“We loved him very much. He was happy,” Hernandez said in a telephone interview Friday.
Noah had been taken away from his parents twice in his young life and placed in foster care, Hernandez said.
Noah moved in and out of foster care. He was returned to his parents, and when he was about 2 years old, he was removed from his parents’ house again after a doctor reportedly determined Noah was malnourished, Hernandez said.
Noah moved in with his maternal great-grandmother, Eva Hernandez, with whom he lived for two years.
“He was doing really good here. My mom took him to every appointment, got WIC, and made sure he ate. I know my mom did the best she could,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez added Noah looked forward to going to preschool.
“He was really intelligent for his age,” Hernandez said. “He talked really well. He can tell you and sing to you, just a really happy little boy. He was really friendly. … He was curious about people.”
Noah would have turned five in August. He was returned to his parents’ house last November after Juarez completed her court-mandated classes.
“She did what the court asked her to do and we didn’t see him since,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez added her mother last saw Noah in May.
There were more reports of alleged abuse, but Hernandez said the social workers called before they visited the family’s home.
“That’s the problem we had. They know about this case but yet they told her ahead of time, and so she can manipulate Noah to say whatever she wanted him to say,” Hernandez said. “They said, ‘OK, nothing’s wrong.’ ”
Hernandez added the day Noah left his great-grandmother’s house he told them he did not want to leave.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to go back to Ursula,’ ” Hernandez said. “He said, ‘I want to stay with you grandma. I want to stay with you. Please don’t let me go back there.’ … It haunts my mom.”
The last time Eva Hernandez saw her great-grandson, Maggie Hernandez said Juarez would not let them be alone together. Noah reportedly had something to tell her but did not get a chance to do so.
“It hurt my heart. I wondered what he wanted to say,” Hernandez said.
Noah’s death follows the deaths of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos of Lancaster in June 2018 and eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale in May 2013. Anthony and Gabriel were found to have suffered severe abuse in cases that raised questions about the effectiveness of DCFS personnel and policies.
In June 2018, Fernandez’s mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 34, was sentenced to life in prison without parole and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 37, was sentenced to death for the torture killing of Gabriel.
In the Avalos case, his mother, Heather Maxine Barron, 29, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, pleaded not guilty to killing and torturing the boy before his death.
In both cases, the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services received reports about abuse but chose to leave each boy in the home with his mother and her boyfriend.
“We want to speak up about this story because obviously it’s the third time this happened,” Hernandez said. “Nothing was done and that’s what we’re angry about. We did the right things we could do and it didn’t work for him.”
A report in Thursday’s L.A. Times said a judge ordered Noah removed from his home two months before his death. But Hernandez said they didn’t know about it until they read about it in the paper.
Hernandez said Noah’s family moved back to Palmdale, possibly after the judge issued the order.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Family Services on Friday could not confirm whether Noah or his family had been involved with the Department, citing privacy concerns and the desire to respect the ongoing law enforcement investigation.
“We join with the community in expressing our deep sadness over the tragic death of this child,” DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said in a statement.
The statement continued: “The safety of the more than two million children in Los Angeles County is the highest priority and fundamental mission of the Department of Children and Family Services where we believe that every child deserves to grow up in a loving and safe home. We share this responsibility with law enforcement, health and mental health professionals, community service providers, school personnel, family members, neighbors, clergy and other community members.
We are committed to collaborating with our partners to understand what happened and to continue to strengthen our collective work for the benefit of vulnerable children and families throughout Los Angeles County.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger will introduce a motion at Tuesday’s L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting to instruct county counsel to oversee a review of the investigation into Noah’s death by the Office of Child Protection, and report back to the Board in 45 days on the following:
• An assessment of the various interactions that any agencies may have had with the family of Noah C. and identify any potential systemic issues or recommendations for modifying and/or strengthening services to optimally protect the health and well-being of children.
• An update on the new pilot program in Palmdale and Lancaster which co-locates social workers with law enforcement agencies to increase cross training and coordination of joint responses and investigations of child abuse reports.
• An update on the ongoing collaboration between law enforcement, Department of Children and Family Services and the District Attorney’s Office, to enhance and improve the utility of the Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System, with recommendations as appropriate.
• An update on the assessment of the existing use of the medical hubs Countywide, including efficacy of services and effective collaboration between the Departments of Health, Mental Health, Public Health and Children and Family Services, to support the needs of children and families involved in child protective services.
• In collaboration with the Directors of Children and Family Services, Health Services and Mental Health, an update on staffing and resources available in the Antelope Valley, understanding the unique nature of the region and previous barriers experienced,
• Direct the Chief Executive Officer, in collaboration with the Director of Children and Family Services, to identify positions that are experiencing recruitment and retention challenges in the Antelope Valley Department of Children and Family Services’ regional offices, and provide recommendations to address them, including financial incentives such as a pay differential and bonuses.
Valley Press wire reports contributed to this story.