“I never had any problems with them,” says neighbor of 4-year-old boy allegedly abused by his adoptive mother

The two younger brothers always looked healthy and well cared for Anel Villanueva, who lived next door to them in the Villa Hermosa apartments in Norwalk.

Their adoptive mother, Gabriela Casarez, told Villanueva that she cannot have biological children and that she hopes to adopt one day.

Villanueva, who runs the apartment complex, struggles to understand what happened on October 28, when 4-year-old Andres was taken on a stretcher by paramedics.

Casarez, 26, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of child abuse and one count of assault leading to coma or paralysis.

Andres, identified in court documents as “Andres F.” remains in hospital with life-threatening injuries.

“I never had a problem with them,” Villanueva said. “I could not believe it.”

Andres was the last child to be severely abused while in the care of the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services.

Earlier this week, DCFS director Bobby Cagle told county leaders he planned to step down before the end of the year.

A person familiar with Cagle’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called the outgoing director “exhausted” and said his departure was not compelled by any particular case.

But Andres ‘abuse had drawn criticism from other county officials, including the Board of Supervisors, which ordered an investigation into the DCFS’ handling of the case.

Unlike Gabriel Fernandez, Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro – children of the DCFS system who have died in recent years after being abused by caregivers – Andres was in the care of a foster parent, not a biological parent.

Her case also raises questions about DCFS treatment of indigenous families in Latin America.

Andres’ birth mother is a Guatemalan immigrant who speaks mainly Akateko, an indigenous Mayan language.

His 2-year-old brother, Emiliano, was also in Casarez’s care and remains in the foster care system.

Casarez’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Alder, an attorney for Andres’ biological family, said DCFS has been slow to provide updates.

The family don’t know who is caring for Emiliano, and they have little information about Andres’ recovery in a Long Beach hospital, Alder said.

A parent said on social media that Andres was out of a coma. His family fear he may be paralyzed or suffer from other permanent disabilities.

“I don’t think it’s affected them yet, what it’s like to have a child hurt that way,” Alder said.

Alder declined to say why DCFS took Andres and Emiliano from their birth mother.

The birth mother said the boys were getting thin under Casarez’s care, their aunt, Maria Jacinto, told freelance journalist Alberto Godinez. in an interview in early November.

“They were punished if they asked to see their mother,” Jacinto said in Spanish. “They were afraid to ask for their mother. She [Casarez] hid them and threatened them in one way or another.

Jacinto blamed the boys’ DCFS social worker, saying she should have watched the children.

“I think it was because the case worker wanted power, making people feel ‘less than’ when they didn’t speak Spanish or English,” Jacinto said.

Andres, who speaks mainly Akateko and does not understand Spanish well, arrived at the hospital with bruises, burns and head injuries, she said.

Interpreter Aurora Pedro, who is fluent in Akateko, said a common misconception is that indigenous languages ​​are dialects of Spanish.

Los Angeles County home to over 30 Indigenous groups from Mexico and Central America who speak at least 17 languages, according to data collected by Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, or CIELO.

Many people mistakenly assume that these residents are fluent in Spanish, while others are not, said Pedro, who is the coordinator of CIELO’s indigenous interpreter program.

“Saying a word or two words in Spanish (…) does not mean that they can go through entire systems – judicial systems – without an interpreter,” said Pedro. “The language used in a court setting is so different from a casual setting, which is why we always advocate that people have interpreters, even if they only understand one or two words or speak Spanish. relaxed. ”

Casarez is in jail on $ 1.2 million bail. His next court date is December 6.

Back in Norwalk, the neighbors are haunted by the seemingly happy family.

Casarez shared his two-bedroom apartment on the first floor with a man, in addition to the two foster children.

Jessica Rios, 49, who lives across from the Casarez complex, saw police spending hours investigating inside the apartment.

She shivers as she thinks about what would have happened to Andres.

It’s ugly“she said – it’s an ugly feeling that she was so close and didn’t notice a thing.

If she had known, she said, “I would have been there, with the pain in my heart, to drag her through all of Norwalk.”

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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