This time, Gabriel Fernandez was not breathing.
The 8-year-old California boy had been on everyone’s radar: He went to school with bald spots and bruises, black eyes and split lips, according to court testimony. Once, he told his teacher that his mother had shot him with a BB gun.
Twice, he asked his teacher to call a social worker, saying, “Can you call that lady?”
The Los Angeles Times cited court testimony alleging that when authorities arrived that Wednesday in May 2013, at a home in Palmdale, outside Los Angeles, Pearl Fernandez told them her son had fallen while roughhousing with his siblings and struck his head on a dresser.
The paramedics found the boy naked in a bedroom with a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns all over his body, according to a statement from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
He had BB gun pellets embedded in his lung and groin, according to the Times. Two days later on May 24, 2013, Gabriel died.
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His 33-year-old mother and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 36, are accused of beating him to death. The two were indicted in 2014 on murder charges.
But what makes Gabriel’s tragic story so uncommon is that the four social workers who were responsible for his health, welfare and safety are set to stand trial for felony child abuse and falsifying documents.
Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar ruled Monday that there was enough evidence to charge the four former social workers and move forward with a trial, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The judge said that “red flags were everywhere” — the injuries, the absences from school, the calls Gabriel’s teacher made to child protective services — and that social workers should have seen them.
“When the judge announced it, I wanted to throw up,” Patricia Clement, one of Gabriel’s social workers, said after the hearing, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Defense attorneys argued that it was after the case was closed that things got worse.
Clement’s attorney, Shelly Albert, disputed the accusations against her client, saying that Gabriel had no physical injuries while Clement was his case worker and that the boy “repeatedly denied” any abuse each time authorities questioned him.
“It is an understatement that my client and I are both in shock and disbelief that the judge has held her to answer to these ridiculous, groundless criminal charges of child abuse and falsification of records,” Albert said in a written statement.
“The People’s case against Ms. Clement (as well as the other three DCFS employees charged along with her), is based entirely on speculation, 20/20 hindsight, and arbitrary ‘what if’ scenarios following minor Gabriel’s tragic and unforeseen death, and NOT on facts existing or known to Ms. Clement during the brief period of time she was his assigned social worker,” she wrote in an email Wednesday to The Washington Post.
Another social worker, Stefanie Rodriguez, and two supervisors, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt, also have been charged in connection with Gabriel’s death.
Los Angeles County’s Acting DCFS Director Brandon T. Nichols said in a statement, “The court’s ruling involves a unique case, and, as previously indicated, DCFS will have no specific comment on People v. Bom as it moves through the courts. That said, this ruling does not cast doubt on the high quality of work done daily by our social workers, who are saving lives and strengthening families, day in and day out.”
A Times review of grand jury testimony, child welfare records and recently filed court documents shows that deputies visited Gabriel’s home multiple times during the eight months prosecutors say he was being tortured and beaten. But the deputies found no signs of abuse and did not file paperwork that would have led specially trained detectives to do more investigating.
One deputy went to the boy’s Palmdale home after his teacher said he had been beaten with a belt. Another deputy, responding to a report that Gabriel was suicidal, left the home without examining or interviewing him.
When a security guard called to report that Gabriel had bruises on his face and what looked like cigarette burns all over his scalp, he was rebuffed by a sheriff’s deputy who screamed that a child being burned was not an emergency, according to court records. Another deputy who eventually went to check on the boy decided that the injuries were caused by a fall from a bicycle.
The department’s final investigation came a week before Gabriel’s death. A sheriff’s deputy tried to find him after school officials reported that he had been absent for a long period and might be a victim of abuse. Gabriel’s mother said that her son had moved to Texas, and the deputy soon halted the inquiry. In fact, Gabriel was still in Palmdale, being beaten with a bat, shot with a BB gun, starved, locked in a small box and forced to eat cat feces, according to prosecutors.
When filing criminal charges against the social workers in 2016, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said, “Social workers play a vital role in society.”
“We entrust them to protect our children from harm,” she said in a statement at the time. “When their negligence is so great as to become criminal, young lives are put at risk. 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.
“We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel’s well-being. They should be held responsible for their actions.”
Legal experts say this may be the first time in California that social workers have been criminally charged in performing their job, and it has not been much more often in other states. When it does happen, it has mixed results.
In Philadelphia, a case worker and others were sent to jail when a child they were responsible for starved to death in 2006. In 2013, a New York case worker and his supervisor, who were indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide in a 4-year-old girl’s death, took a deal and pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, according to the New York Times. And when a 3-year-old boy was found dead in Michigan in 2016, prosecutors charged two social workers with involuntary manslaughter.
The manslaughter charge, however, was thrown out this year, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“You’re talking about something that’s very rare,” David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, told The Post. “It’s very uncommon in the United States that we prosecute people for actions that they’re doing as part of their profession. We don’t typically prosecute doctors because somebody dies, we don’t prosecute dentists … we don’t prosecute engineers or architects when a building falls down. That’s why we have the civil courts.”
But LaBahn said that Gabriel’s case sounds like “a systemic failure” and that “there has to be some accountability.”
Rebecca Gonzales, director of government relations for the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the outcome could have consequences for child welfare agencies.
“It is disturbing to us and we do think it could have a negative effect on social workers wanting to pursue the profession, especially in child welfare,” she told The Post. “Child welfare is a very difficult area of social work. It takes a special person who is educated in these issues and is able to work in a very high-pressure job. We do think that across the country, most child welfare agencies, those social workers have very high case loads. So they work in a system where it’s very difficult to be successful because they’re expected to track so many cases and be on top of so many family situations.”
LaBahn, a former child-abuse prosecutor in California, acknowledged that social workers have “a really, really tough job.” He said prosecuting the four in California could have mixed results.
“It drives a huge wedge between the prosecutor’s office and whatever that public agency is,” he said. At the same time, he said, “it makes everybody do a better job.”
“Especially if there’s a conviction,” he said, “there’s going to be a lot of other social workers in California wondering, ‘How did that happen?’ and wanting to make sure they’re not doing the same thing.”