Many people failed Gabriel Fernandez over the course of his brief life.
First, the 8-year-old was allegedly betrayed, to put it mildly, by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. The two, who have been charged with murder, are accused of subjecting Gabriel to eight months of unthinkable trauma: beatings that left him bruised and bloody, cruel torture that included forcing him to eat cat feces and his own vomit.
According to grand jury transcripts cited by the Los Angeles Times, Gabriel slept in a locked cabinet and was not allowed to leave to go to the bathroom. Fernandez and Aguirre allegedly hit him with a metal hanger, a belt buckle, a small bat and a wooden club.
Gabriel’s siblings told the grand jury that the adults punished Gabriel when he played with dolls and forced him to wear girls’ clothes to school. Once, Fernandez allegedly jabbed Gabriel in the mouth with a bat and knocked out several teeth.
On May 22, 2013, Gabriel was found barely breathing at his home in Palmdale, Calif. He had a fractured skull, three broken ribs, two knocked out teeth, burns over his body and BB pellets embedded in his chest and groin, NBC Los Angeles reported.
Two days later, he died in the hospital. As the gruesome details of his alleged treatment surfaced, people wondered how something so terrible could have happened to a boy not yet a decade old.
Who would be held responsible for what Tammi Stefano of the National Safe Child Coalition called a “disgrace to our nation”? Fernandez, 31, and Aguirre, 35, have pleaded not guilty to capital murder and are awaiting trial. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office proposed another culpable party: employees of the child welfare system, under whose surveillance Gabriel died.
Four Los Angeles County social workers — Stefanie Rodriguez, 30; Patricia Clement, 65; Kevin Bom, 36; and Gregory Merritt, 60 — have been charged with child abuse and falsifying public records. In allegedly disregarding the abuse that Gabriel was confronting, prosecutors contend, the social workers contributed to his suffering. None of those charged have filed pleas yet.
“Social workers play a vital role in society. We entrust them to protect our children from harm,” L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement. “When their negligence is so great as to become criminal, young lives are put at risk.”
Lacey added: “By minimizing the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered, these social workers allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused.”
The social workers were assigned Gabriel’s case more than six months before he died — enough time for them to be complicit in his abuse, prosecutors contend.
Rodriguez and Clement are accused of “falsifying reports that should have documented signs of Gabriel’s escalating physical abuse.” When the family failed to cooperate with the Department of Children and Family Services, Rodriguez and Clement allegedly failed to follow up.
Prosecutors claim that Bom and Merritt, who were Rodriguez and Clement’s supervisors, should have in turn known that the reports were false. They allegedly approved them anyway, allowing reports that conflicted with evidence of Gabriel’s “deteriorating physical well-being” to be entered into the system.
Each of the workers faces up to 10 years in state prison if convicted.
After Gabriel’s death, the DCFS launched an internal investigation that determined “a number of DCFS staff associated with Gabriel’s case performed far below expectations,” department director Philip Browning said in a letter to employees.
Browning announced that four staff members — the same four that have been arrested — were being discharged. According to the Associated Press, Merritt successfully appealed his termination and now still works for the county, but in a different role.
Merritt’s union representative, the Los Angeles Times reported, argued that Merritt was being scapegoated, noting the social workers in the area have some of the heaviest caseloads in the county.
The lawyers in court on Thursday said that the defendants were devoted to serving their communities.
“My client’s name will be cleared,” Rodriguez’s attorney, Lance Filer, told the AP.
Darcy Calkins, Clement’s lawyer, said Clement was a former nun with a graduate degree in marriage and family counseling. She had served as a chaplain at juvenile hall and spent most of her career as a public servant, Calkins told the AP.
The lawyers said Bom is a licensed therapist and senior member of his church. Merritt teaches college courses.
It is rare for welfare workers to be prosecuted for physical abuse perpetrated by other individuals. District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison told the AP that this is the first case of its kind to be prosecuted in Los Angeles County, and likely the first in the state.
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