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Boy, 2, Dies; Mother Arrested in His Beating

A Canoga Park woman is held after her roommate finally calls paramedics to report the injuries, which include severe internal bleeding.

October 02, 2003|Hector Becerra and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

A 2-year-old boy died at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles on Wednesday night, a day after his 19-year-old mother was jailed on suspicion of repeatedly beating him and failing to call for help despite his critical injuries, police said.

Claudia Merlos, being held in lieu of $500,000 bail, now could face charges of murder.

After a call to authorities by Merlos' roommate, the toddler was rushed to Columbia West Hills Medical Center about 9 p.m. Tuesday in full cardiac arrest and later transferred to Childrens Hospital. His injuries included massive internal bleeding, said Lt. Dennis Shirey of the Los Angeles Police Department.

"This child was in a very bad way and visibly beaten," Shirey said. "After questioning the mother and a witness, detectives determined the injuries were intentionally inflicted by the mother."

Merlos admitted to detectives of the LAPD's abused-child unit that she had punched her son, Ivan, in the stomach and then, out of fear of having him taken away, did not call paramedics, law enforcement sources said.

Neil Zanville, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, said the department has launched an investigation.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, Zanville would not confirm if Merlos was being monitored by social workers. The department cannot release details about cases under its jurisdiction unless permission is granted by the presiding judge of the juvenile court.

Marina Divas, a mother of three with whom Merlos shared a Canoga Park apartment, said her roommate was sometimes affectionate with her son, but other times hit, slapped and struck Ivan with a belt. Merlos even flung him against a wall of the one-bedroom apartment, Divas said. She said Ivan was beaten by Merlos at least three times in the last week, became seriously ill, had diarrhea, vomited blood and had no appetite. "I told her, 'Take him to the hospital,' " Divas said.

On Sept. 16, Merlos took the boy to Northridge Hospital Medical Center with a broken leg, police said. While there, according to Divas, Merlos was warned by the staff that if something happened again to the boy, "she would lose the child."

Shirey said that the earlier incident was reported to the LAPD and Department of Children and Family Services because Merlos did not take Ivan to the hospital until a day after his leg was injured. According to a police report on the incident, the treating doctor determined the boy's injury was consistent with his mother's story that he was hurt in an accident at home.

Divas also said Ivan was accidentally injured. She said Merlos, who is 3 feet tall, uses a motorized wheelchair because she has difficulty walking. Ivan, who liked to stand on the back of the chair, according to Divas, stuck his foot into one of its sturdy rubber wheels, breaking his leg.

Zanville, the Department of Children and Family Services spokesman, said a statement by a doctor that an injury was caused by accident would carry weight with social workers.

County social workers had visited the women's apartment previously, Divas said. More than a month ago, social workers, in response to a report from a neighbor about children crying, came to the apartment to check on the welfare of Divas' three daughters. "They checked my girls and saw that they were fine and that I didn't beat them," Divas said. "They didn't check [Ivan], and the thing was that day he was beat up."

Divas conceded that she had never called authorities about the boy. "I thought of reporting her, but I didn't want to get in any problems," she said.

But she finally called paramedics Tuesday night when Ivan stopped breathing. She said the boy had a hole in his stomach and had lost a lot of blood.

She said she allowed Merlos to move into the tiny apartment after Merlos' family kicked her out of its Canoga Park home in June. Divas said she also had been kicked out by her family after having her first child and understood Merlos' plight. The women lived on government assistance, she said.

A neighbor at the Roscoe Boulevard apartment complex, Isabel Gonzalez, 30, recalled seeing paramedics Tuesday night desperately trying to help the boy. She said she asked Merlos what happened. "He got sick," Merlos is said to have replied.

Divas said detectives took rolls of undeveloped film, some of which may contain pictures of the boy showing evidence of beatings. As reporters and eventually more social workers arrived to do follow-up interviews Wednesday, Divas grew teary-eyed about the fate of the boy, lamenting, "I think I should have called sooner."

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