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O.C. counselor is accused of molestation

An Orangewood home employee is suspected of sexually abusing a girl in his charge on three occasions.

May 20, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A counselor at the Orangewood home for abused and neglected children was arrested over the weekend on suspicion of molesting a girl under his charge.

Abner Avila, 24, was taken into custody Saturday when he arrived at work, said Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman Jim Amormino. He was released on $100,000 bail Sunday.

Terry Lynn Fisher, spokeswoman for the county Department of Social Services, said Avila was a group counselor at Orangewood Children's Home and had been placed on leave without pay. Avila underwent a "thorough" background check before he was hired about two years ago, she said.

The Lake Elsinore resident is accused of molesting the girl on three occasions beginning in November, Amormino said. He was charged with unlawful sexual penetration and child annoyance. Fisher said the girl is "nearly 18."

The first incident allegedly occurred at the county-run facility in Orange. Avila allegedly assaulted the girl again in February or March when driving her to another location while she was still in the county's care.

The final incident allegedly occurred this month, when Avila drove to Anaheim and the foster home where the girl is living and persuaded her to get in his car, Amormino said.

"I have no idea how he persuaded her to get in his car or why she did," Amormino said. "But it's a shame when somebody violates a position of trust, especially when it involves kids who are abused or neglected and are simply looking for reassurance."

The alleged assaults were reported by an Orangewood resident who alerted Orangewood officials last week. There may be other victims, Amormino said.

Dr. Michael L. Riley, chief deputy director of the Orange County Social Services Agency, said the Orangewood staff was shocked by the allegations against Avila, who was well-liked by colleagues.

"We take our obligation to protect children who come into our protective custody seriously," Riley said. "This has had a very negative impact on the staff."

Riley said Orangewood had assisted "tens of thousands" of children since opening 23 years ago.

"We had no idea this was going on. We're in the process of reviewing our practices and policies," he said. "We're also working with the young lady . . . to ensure she gets the necessary support she needs to get through this."

Avila met the minimum qualifications -- including ongoing training, continuing education and experience as a group counselor -- and there was nothing from his background check that raised concern, Fisher said.

Orangewood officials are studying whether the allegations against Avila are grounds for dismissal, she said.

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hgreza@latimes.com

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