PALMDALE, Calif. – The great-grandmother of a Southern California boy who died under suspicious circumstances last week said Wednesday that she cared for the child for years between stints in foster care, and he had begged not to be returned to his parents.
Noah Cuatro, 4, was in his birth parents' care when he died last Saturday. The parents took him to a hospital after they say he drowned in a pool at their Palmdale apartment complex, but investigators say medical staff found trauma on the boy's body that was inconsistent with drowning.
Eva Hernandez, the child's great-grandmother, told KTLA Noah was first taken from his mother at birth. After that, he was in and out of foster care until he was put in Hernandez's custody at 3 months old, she said.
The courts decided Noah should be returned to his parents at 9 months old, but he was again removed from their home about a year after that because of neglect and malnutrition, according to Hernandez.
After being placed in a foster or group home, Noah was eventually returned to Hernandez. He lived with her for more than two years in what she describes as very stable conditions.
But last November, the boy was again returned to his mother and father — despite his own protests, Hernandez said.
“I told the social workers, ‘Please, he doesn’t want to leave. He wants to stay here. He begged me,’ Hernandez told KTLA. “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.”
After that, Noah's mother allegedly wouldn't let his great-grandmother see him until 3 months ago, when Hernandez says she saw the child for the last time.
“He was not the same little boy anymore," Hernandez said. "He looked so sad and withdrawn.”
Hernandez said she got the sense that Noah wanted to tell her something was wrong but was unable to.
“He didn’t have the chance. She was just looking at him, and he wouldn’t say anything,” Hernandez said of the mother. “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.”
Noah has an older brother who was also in an out of foster care, according to Hernandez.
Investigators say three children were removed from the home after the 4-year-old's death and placed into protective custody.
Hernandez claims she got a tip from other relatives that Noah was being mistreated after she last saw the boy 3 months ago.
The great-grandmother says that prompted her to file a complaint with the county's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), asking social workers to make an unannounced visit to the home. But when the agency called her back, they allegedly said they let the mother know they were coming and reported that everything was OK in the home.
In a statement released Wednesday, DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said the department is unable to provide any information on the case due to privacy restrictions.
"We join with the community in expressing our deep sadness over the tragic death of this child," Cagle said.
Noah's parents told authorities he drowned last Friday in the pool at their complex on the 1200 block of Avenue S before they took him to a Los Angeles-area hospital, where he was pronounced dead around 8 a.m. the next morning, according to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
But other relatives say the pool area at the building is locked, and Noah would have been too small to gain access on his own, according to Hernandez.
Detectives have not described the injuries found on Noah's body, other than to say they don't appear to be drowning-related.
The boy's parents have been questioned, but as of Wednesday afternoon neither had been arrested.
L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said Tuesday that reuniting a child with his or her birth parents is always the ultimate goal of DCFS intervention.
“When you look at what the county’s role is, family reunification is first and foremost,” she said.
Sheriff's investigators said Tuesday that they were still working to obtain Noah's case history.
Noah's is the third high-profile case involving an Antelope Valley boy who died in the home he had been placed in by DCFS, following Gabriel Fernandez and Anthony Avalos.
Avalos' mother and boyfriend are facing capital murder charges in the Lancaster boy's death, while Fernandez's mother received a lifetime prison sentence and her boyfriend was sentenced to death after a jury found they tortured and killed the boy.
The department is also facing a lawsuit from the family of a 2-year-old Westchester boy who was allegedly killed by his mother's boyfriend after relatives say social workers ignored evidence he was being abused. Josafat Bonifacio, 27, has been charged with murder in Damien Ventura's death.
Barger says county officials alone can't be answerable for the welfare of children in their care and the community must share in that responsibility, saying "Change happens from the bottom up."