Criminal Justice

Social workers charged with felony child abuse in boy’s death at the hands of his mother

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Four Los Angeles social workers will be tried for felony child abuse and other charges stemming from the murder of an 8-year-old boy by his mother and her boyfriend.

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the social workers who worked on the case of Gabriel Fernandez will be tried for felony child abuse and falsifying public records. Prosecutors say caseworkers Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt ignored signs of abuse and repeated reports from adults in the child’s life. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison each.

Gabriel Fernandez was tortured for months by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, prosecutors say. Paramedics arrived at their home in Los Angeles County in May of 2013 to find Gabriel not breathing, with multiple broken bones and BBs in two parts of his body. A paramedic testified that “it was just like every inch of this child had been abused,” according to an earlier article from the Los Angeles Times.

Two of Gabriel’s siblings testified that the adults forced Gabriel to eat cat feces and rotten vegetables, beat him with household objects, punished him when he played with dolls, called him gay and made him wear girls’ clothes to school. Gabriel once wrote a note saying he was thinking about suicide.

Aguirre and Pearl Fernandez are charged with capital murder and have pleaded not guilty. A prosecutor in their case told a jury that they’d hidden their crimes by lying to social workers and sheriff’s deputies and forging notes from doctors.

But prosecutors say the social workers also bear some blame. Over a decade, there had been six investigations into abuse by the mother, and all but one had been called “unfounded.” At the time of the child’s death, another complaint was in his file and had been pending for two months past the deadline for investigation. A former teacher of Gabriel’s testified Monday that she repeatedly reported signs of abuse to the county, including a statement by Gabriel that “my mom shot me in the face with a BB gun.”

Internal documents at the county child protection agency fault the workers for understating the danger to Gabriel. One found him at “high risk” instead of “very high risk” because she left out information about Pearl Fernandez’s known mental health problems. The supervisors signed off on those evaluations, prosecutors say.

The social workers argued that the fatal escalation of violence against Gabriel happened when the family was not under county supervision, and that there’s no evidence that workers falsified any documents or could have predicted his death. They also said other mandated reporters involved in the case, including sheriff’s deputies who visited the home multiple times in the months before Gabriel’s death, weren’t being prosecuted. And they said the office was understaffed and overworked.

It’s unusual for social workers to be criminally charged in these situations, the Times notes, but not unprecedented. Involuntary manslaughter charges against two Michigan social workers were dismissed in January. In 2013, a New York social worker and his supervisor pleaded guilty to lesser misdemeanors after originally being charged with criminally negligent homicide after a 4-year-old was beaten and starved to death by her mother. In 2006, the Washington Post says, several Philadelphia workers went to jail after a child starved to death.

Rebecca Gonzales of the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers told the Post that the case could have bad consequences for social workers as a whole.

“We do think it could have a negative effect on social workers wanting to pursue the profession, especially in child welfare,” she said. “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.”

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