Years ago I received an offer by mail to purchase life insurance for my children. “Up to $25,000.” “Don’t send money now.” “Your rates will never go up.” “Does not require medical review.” “Tax free”. It came from a company called Global, from Oklahoma, but it could’ve come from anywhere.
The letter played directly into the fears we parents have–that something terrible will happen to our children, cunningly exploiting our anxieties, with the goal of convincing us that life insurance works as an amulet, as a guard against death.
Of course, it doesn’t.
But the fear that this advertisement exploits is not unfounded. It is based on true events. On everyday events.
Here, in Los Angeles, murders occur at a rate of about one a day, but they rapidly flip out of our consciousness. We do not hear much about them, and if we do we forget them shortly. Our attention span lasts less than the time it takes to read each story.
In the streets of Los Ángeles, children –those who are less than 7 years of age– and those between 8 and 18. are killed as part of a never ending cycle of violence, crime, drugs, hatred. A cycle that occurs far away from most of us. Like on another planet. On Planet Murder. Planet Dead Children.
We are strangers to it.
Until we see an altar on a random street corner of a well traveled neighborhood, where people leave votive candles and flowers and photos of a young boy or a young girl smiling into the camera. Their last photo, that of his prom, that of her quinceañera. Somebody wrote “Nunca te olvidaremos.”
We ignore the murder of children until we pass by a parking lot where a group of teenagers are washing cars, hoping to make some money to help pay for the funeral of a friend or a cousin, who was one of them only a few hours before. One like them, who was just killed.
Almost always, those teenagers are black or Latino.
In many neighborhoods where most in our communities live, life is cheap, and is especially dangerous for those between 0-18 years of age.
Life begins and ends rapidly.
And there is no insurance available to protect it.
According to the investigation “Rising Rates of Homicide of Children and Adolescent,” published in JAMA Pediatrics in December 2022, “Homicide is a leading cause of death for children in the United States.” The rate has increased by an average of 4.3% every year for almost a decade.
The numbers are staggering. Between 1999-2020, 38,362 children were victims of homicide in the US. And from 2019-2020, the last year included in the study, the rate rose by a staggering 27.7%.
While homicide rates for Caucasian and Asian children have declined every year since 1999, they have been increasing for Black and Hispanic children.
Of these, the most abominable crime, with no room for forgiveness, is that of parents who murder their children.
That horrible outcome always starts with physical abuse.
So this week I felt deeply sad and incredibly impotent after reading that Heather Maxine Barron from Lancaster and her boyfriend Ernesto Leiva, a Salvadoran immigrant, were sentenced to life without parole in the first degree murder and torture of her 10-year-old son, Anthony Avalos. This murder happened in June 2018 and it has taken almost five years to arrive at this sentence.
Little Anthony died from severe dehydration and blunt force trauma to the head, and as a result of long-term and hellish torture.
Last October, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a settlement for $32 million for the surviving family that sued after social workers failed to respond to the reports.
It also reminded me of the horrible death in 2013 of little Gabriel Fernandez from Palmdale, an 8 year old boy who was abused, tortured, neglected and malnourished during his eight month stay with his mother and her boyfriend, finally dying after a particularly violent and abhorrent torture session.
Also in this case warning signs were all over the place, and were either ignored or taken lightly. But those were only two in a series of killings that have not abated.
In May of last year, siblings Nathalie, 12, and 8-year-old twins Kevin and Nathan Flores were allegedly killed by their mother Angela Dawn Flores and their 16 year old brother in their home in Woodland Hills. Both are being tried for murder.
In March of 2022, Samarah, 9; Samantha, 10; and Samia, 13, were killed by their father, David Mora, who later killed himself. This left their mother, Ileana Gutiérrez, to mourn them and lament that a judge had granted the mother a restraining order but refused to include the three girls in it.
In June of 2021, Sandra Chico, from East Los Angeles, was arrested and charged with the murder of her three children, ages 1, 3, and 4. She pleaded not guilty. The trial is ongoing.
In April of the same year, Liliana Carrillo from Reseda drowned her three children while battling their father for custody of the minors. She also pleaded not guilty, even after admitting to the killing in a live interview on TV.
In all of these cases the victims were Hispanic. The system failed those children.
According to the L.A. County Department of Children and Families Service, 242 children died under special circumstances in the County just in 2022; 142 of them had a “history” with DCFS, meaning that they or their siblings “were previously referred to DCFS as a potential victim of abuse or neglect.” Despite the referrals, they died.
For 2021 the total was 315, and for 2020, 283.
The criteria for determining that death was the result of abuse and or neglect are strict.
Of the 242 in 2022, 34 children died of confirmed abuse or neglect, while another 27 fall under the category of “reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect.”
Half of those were killed by their mothers. A quarter, by the mother and father together. The rest, by the father or the boyfriend.
And here is the shocking truth: between 2015, the first year this data was collected and published, and 2022, Latinos placed first in the number of children killed in the county. Every year but one.
Latinos, according to the anti gun violence organization Giffords, bear a disproportionate toll of this epidemic compared to other demographic groups in the whole country. Latinos are both perpetrators and victims.
And according to the CDC Wonder report, an average of 4,147 Latinos die from gun violence each year— roughly 11 gun deaths every day. While from 2014 to 2020 national gun deaths rose 34%, the number of Latinos rose double: 66%.
This is getting worse.
Are we becoming a more violent, heartless community? Is something wrong with Latino parents? Why is this happening?
In reality, this terrible phenomenon doesn’t choose sides. It is prevalent among all communities and across all income levels. But the question remains; why does this happen in Latino families?
As we know, most Latinos, especially immigrants, live under incessant pressure. They are not from here. Many come from troubled societies. Many of them fled violence and torture in their home countries, having lived under constant threat for their lives.
There are families with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in every generation. Then they come and are supposed to “act like Americans,” but they are not treated the same. They often live in substandard and crowded housing, together with others with similar backgrounds facing low levels of education, ongoing racism and daily social and economic pressures. Most of them lack the necessary tools to address generations of trauma. It is a recipe for disaster. The results are higher rates of addiction, alcoholism, crime and yes, domestic violence.
Domestic violence is common but frequently goes unreported out of fear of deportation and becoming homeless. And so, the pressure is harder on women, on mothers, who are often expected to work full time and bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities while confronting misogynistic behavior.
As in all communities, current economic problems usually result in increased abuse and neglect of children.
One way to fight this is through early intervention in the home. Programs like the federal Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, where “families choose to participate in home visiting programs, and partner with health, social service, and child development professionals to set and achieve goals that improve their health and well-being,” help.
There are different versions of this program at every level. Churches, non-profits, county, citywide. Here is a list of 11 protection programs in Los Angeles.
But Los Ángeles is still dangerous. For some more than for others. For communities of color, for the poor. And for their children.
If there are innocent victims, they are the children. They are short, distracted, and naive. Absolutely vulnerable. They only know how to live in the present and should have their whole lives ahead of them, but become trapped at the scenes of violence, or become its ruthless target. In their own homes.
True life insurance for children can be achieved by making violence against them inconceivable. Establishing additional punishments for those who harm them. Eradicating the poverty and ignorance in which they grow up. And providing the communities with the tools to prevent child abuse within our neighborhoods.
If you know of any case of child abuse in the family, call the Child Protection Hotline (800) 540-4000 of the County to report it. Outside of California, (213) 639-4500. For the hearing impaired (TDD), call (800) 272-6699. The number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is (800) 799-SAFE (7233).