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L.A. County social services facing lawsuit in Palmdale child abuse case

Justice SystemCrime, Law and Justice

The grandparents of a fatally injured 8-year-old Palmdale boy, whose history of alleged physical abuse has prompted a sweeping review of Los Angeles' child welfare system, have sued, accusing officials of missing repeated opportunities to save the child.

The complaint naming the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services asserts that more than 60 reports of abuse involving Gabriel Fernandez were lodged with the agency. But only five to eight investigations were initiated, the suit says, and none of those met the department's own requirements for thoroughness.

Also named as defendants in the case are the Palmdale School District, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services and the Sheriff's Department. Gabriel's maternal grandparents, who cared for the boy for much of his early life until he was returned to his mother over the couple's objections, allege that each agency mishandled information regarding Gabriel's abuse.

The suit, seeking unspecified damages, alleges wrongful death, civil rights violations and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

"It's just a horrific, unimaginable situation for them," said Jennifer Smith, a lawyer for the grandparents. "They are getting some satisfaction that Gabriel will get a voice through this court action."

A spokesman for the Department of Children and Family Services declined to comment on the suit.

Gabriel's mother and her boyfriend were charged with murder after paramedics responded to the family's home last spring and found Gabriel with signs of extensive abuse, including a fractured skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin.

The lawsuit comes after a county review of the case found repeated breakdowns in monitoring Gabriel's care and failures to follow up on complaints and warnings that the boy was being mistreated. The county subsequently moved to fire four social workers involved in the case and created a commission of experts to examine child protection programs and recommend reforms. The panel is expected to deliver its findings later this year.

The grandparents' lawyer said far-reaching changes are needed. "Many of the people involved in this case are good people trying to do their job," she said. "But it's a systemic problem that starts at the top."

The suit alleges the department routinely conducts incomplete investigations and makes arbitrary decisions about whether to remove children because social workers are overwhelmed by excessive caseloads.

It alleges county social workers failed to interview Gabriel privately and examine him fully.

According to child welfare records released to The Times as the result of a court order, Gabriel's mother acknowledged her mental illness, a history of alcohol and drug dependency, and that she had discontinued counseling and used a belt to discipline him.

Social workers wrote that she provided physical care "consistent with child's needs," the records show.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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