Madera County is investigating whether Department of Social Services workers were criminally culpable for failing to recognize warning signs in a recent torture and child abuse death case.
Four members of the Department of Social Services’ leadership were placed on administrative leave more than two weeks ago in connection with the case. The department’s director, one of those under investigation, has since retired.
Mariah Flores, 12, died in October 2014. More than a year later, the girl’s mother, Amy Louise Chavoya, 43, was charged with torturing and murdering Mariah and torturing one of Mariah’s siblings. Chavoya is in Madera County Jail. She faces the death penalty.
Investigators are looking into why dozens of calls made about abuse in the family’s Madera Ranchos home were not followed up by the Department of Social Services.
District Attorney David Linn said that a sheriff’s detective and District Attorney’s Office investigator are examining records to find out if the Department of Social Services or its employees could be criminally culpable in the case.
Whether there is a cover-up or not, I don’t know.
David Linn, Madera County district attorney
Linn said he’s asked the state Auditor’s Office to assist by going into the Department of Social Services’ computers to hunt for additional records.
“Whether there is a cover-up or not, I don’t know,” Linn said.
Thus far, the investigation shows that there was a “lack of follow-through,” he said.
Chavoya’s husband, Gerardo Flores, a San Joaquin County Sheriff’s deputy, is not charged and Linn said no evidence has connected Flores to the crimes against the children. Linn said it appears Flores spent days away from home at a time because of the location of his job.
Six children lived in the home, three adoptive and three of the couple’s own children, county officials say, and two of the children, Mariah and a brother, were victims.
Linn said adoptive children are not typically under supervision of the Department of Social Services, but in a little more than a year, the department received as many as 30 to 40 abuse reports that the Department of Social Services should have been following up.
Director retires, Walsh returns
After the investigation was announced, Kelly Woodard announced her retirement as Department of Social Services director. She was director for eight years and worked in Madera County for 12 years. She previously worked in Fresno County. Woodard had previously announced plans to retire, Linn said.
Woodard has been replaced on a temporary basis by former director Hub Walsh. Walsh lost his reelection run for Merced County supervisor in 2016. He had previously served nine years as Madera County Department of Social Services director and before that worked in Merced County’s Human Services Agency. Prior to his election as a county supervisor in 2008, Walsh served on the Merced City Council, too.
I was hoping I would never see a case like this in Madera County.
David Linn, Madera County district attorney
In a Madera County Board of Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday, Harkiran Sandhu is under consideration for additional compensation as new deputy director for the Department of Social Services. Also, the county has named Stan Koehler, a former member of the Madera County administrative office, as deputy county administrative officer/human resources to assist investigators. He retired in 2009.
Eric Fleming, county administrative officer, said the county is recruiting for a new Department of Social Services director.
Three other Department of Social Services employees have been on administrative leave with pay nearly three weeks.
Following initial concerns about the Department of Social Services’ cooperation, Linn now says that under new leadership the department is “fully cooperating with our investigation at this time.”
Comparison to Seth Ireland case
Linn compares Mariah’s death to the Seth Ireland case in Fresno County, in which a young child was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend after continuous episodes of beatings. Fresno County eventually settled a civil case after its Child Protective Services workers were found partially at fault in the boy’s death.
“I was hoping I would never see a case like this in Madera County,” Linn said. “I want to make sure it never happens again.”
Chavoya, who also is charged with attempting to dissuade a witness (Mariah’s brother) from testifying against her, is due in court next in April.