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Child services supervisor in case of tortured boy can return to work and regain pay, judge rules

Child services supervisor in case of tortured boy can return to work and regain pay, judge rules
Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was allegedly murdered by his mother and her boyfriend, is shown here in undated family photographs. (handout /)

A Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services supervisor who was fired following the torture death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez will regain his pay and benefits, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ordered the county to reinstate the compensation for Gregory Merritt as he awaits a hearing, scheduled for May, to decide whether he will permanently regain his $107,000 job, according to DCFS spokesman Armand Montiel. In the meantime, he will work from home with still-to-be-determined responsibilities.

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Merritt successfully appealed his firing to L.A. County's civil service commission, but county lawyers blocked his return when they appealed the decision in Chalfant's courtroom, saying he "egregiously" missed multiple opportunities to save 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

Montiel said it was unclear if the county was also required to pay Merritt retroactively to April 2015, when the civil service reversed his firing.

The dead boy's mother and her boyfriend are awaiting trial on charges of capital murder and a special circumstance of torture. They have pleaded not guilty.

The pair are accused of beating Gabriel to death after dousing him with pepper spray, forcing him to eat his own vomit and locking him in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams, according to court records. Detectives who searched the family's apartment found a wooden club covered in Gabriel's blood.

In the months before the boy was killed, several agencies had investigated allegations of abuse without removing him from the home. Shortly before his death, Merritt and social worker Patricia Clement decided to close Gabriel's case.

At the time, Clement had "skeleton" case notes for at least one visit, leading Browning to later testify that he questioned whether she actually had gone to the home. Other required visits had not been done at all, according to case records.

A key responsibility of supervising social workers is to review case notes.

According to a brief by Children and Family Services lawyers in support of Merritt's firing, he knew from Clement's performance evaluations that she sometimes did not complete her required visits and did not document them properly. By her own account, Clement had failed to interview Gabriel privately, as called for by department guidelines.

She and Merritt also were aware that the boy had written a suicide note and had a BB pellet embedded in his chest. Yet he was not sent for medical treatment or mental health assessment, the lawyers said.

Browning fired Merritt, Clement and two other social workers over the case; Merritt appealed.

The five-member civil service panel, which is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, voted unanimously to reinstate him, imposing a 30-day suspension in lieu of termination.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose civil service commission appointee joined the decision to reinstate Merritt, denounced Chalfant's ruling.

"The lack of oversight by the supervising social worker cost a young boy's innocent life," Antonovich said. "The action by the judge to further block Merritt's termination indicates complete unawareness for the gravity of these mistakes and it further compromises the county's efforts to protect our most vulnerable children."

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