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An 8-year-old boy's death has social workers wondering, 'Could I face criminal charges?'

In a case that has sent a chill through the ranks of child protection workers nationwide, a Los Angeles County judge will soon decide if there is sufficient evidence to put four social workers on trial for criminal negligence in the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy they were charged with protecting.

Gabriel Fernandez died in May 2013, after suffering months of torture and abuse at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, according to prosecutors. The two are awaiting trial on capital murder charges.

But the spotlight is also on four former Department of Children and Family Services employees who are charged with felony child abuse and falsifying public records.

Prosecutors allege that caseworkers Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt ignored evidence of repeated abuse and minimized Gabriel’s injuries.

L.A. sheriff's deputies disciplined after horrific torture death of 8-year-old boy »

The Fernandez case is the first in Los Angeles in which social workers face criminal charges in performing their duties, said prosecutors, and is one of only a handful of such cases filed nationwide in recent decades.

In two weeks of testimony during a preliminary hearing, Gabriel’s first-grade teacher and other witnesses testified to their mounting concern over signs of physical abuse — facial bruises, scabs, missing tufts of hair, busted lips — and alarm that their calls to the caseworkers went unheeded. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar is scheduled to rule this week on whether the evidence warrants a criminal trial.

The county fired the social workers, but Merritt is appealing his termination in court. All four vehemently deny any wrongdoing.

“They are scapegoats,” said Merritt’s attorney, Jim Barnes. “There are plenty of other people here involved in the decision-making.”

The decision by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to prosecute the employees surprised many child protection experts, who fear the case may hamper efforts to recruit social workers for public sector jobs.

“This case is creating a lot of apprehension,” said Janlee Wong, executive director of the California chapter of the National Assn. of Social Workers. “People considering whether to choose to go into the field of child protective social work are now considering, ‘Could I face criminal charges if something goes wrong?’ ” 

Wong would not comment on the merits of the Los Angeles prosecution, but said social workers are ground troops who, for the most part, follow orders from their superiors.

“When a kid dies, there is plenty of guilt to go around and responsibility that ought to be shouldered,” Wong said. “When we pick on certain people we want to be held responsible, we’re not holding the entire system responsible.”  

Marilyn Flynn, dean of USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, said the county department had been “deeply troubled” for years, plagued by outdated systems, high caseloads and frequent turnover of leadership. “This affected the quality of supervision, the ability of the workers to make consistent decisions and demoralized employees,” Flynn said.

Prosecutors filed the case after the county’s child welfare department requested a review of its own internal investigation.

“In our rigorous reconstruction of the events surrounding Gabriel’s death, we found that four of our social workers had failed to perform their jobs. I directed that all of them be discharged,” the department’s then-director, Philip Browning, said.

In testimony during the preliminary hearing, Summerwind Elementary School teacher Jennifer Garcia said in the months before Gabriel’s death, she repeatedly reported to county child service workers new signs of abuse that prosecutors say came at the hands of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.

A few weeks into the 2012-13 school year, Garcia saw a facial bruise the size of a half-dollar on the boy and he revealed he was beaten with a belt buckle, drawing blood, she said. She immediately called a county child abuse hotline and received a call back from social worker Rodriguez, she testified.

In January 2013, Garcia said, Gabriel came to school with swollen eyes and a pockmarked face. At first, he said he had fallen, but he then told her, “My mom shot me in the face with a BB gun,” she testified.

On two occasions, she testified, a fearful Gabriel asked, “Can you call that lady?”, referring to the county social worker he knew she had been calling. Garcia said she began to lose confidence in child protective services as months passed and Gabriel remained with his mother.

“I kind of started to feel nothing was happening,” she testified.

Records show Rodriguez went to the home to investigate and documented small bruises and swelling on Gabriel’s face. His mother blamed her other son for firing rubber pellets at Gabriel, according to her notes. Rodriguez also looked into the belt beating, but the boy denied his earlier story, calling it a joke, she wrote in her report. After the BB gun incident, Clement, a former nun and juvenile hall chaplain, took over the case from Rodriguez.

In announcing the charges, Lacey said: “When their negligence is so great as to become criminal, young lives are put at risk. We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel’s well-being.” 

Prosecutors have declined to provide details of the charges, such as how records may have been falsified. 

Lance M. Filer, Rodriguez’s attorney, said there is no evidence his client fabricated anything in her case notes or reports. “They are trying to hold our clients responsible for the independent actions of criminals,” he said, referring to Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend.

Hagop Kuyumjian, the attorney for Bom, one of the supervisors, has insisted that his client was reliant on Rodriguez’s reports and had no direct knowledge of abusive acts.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant in January 2016 overturned a civil service commission’s decision to reinstate Merritt, noting that as the supervising social worker he approved Clement’s proposal to override the family’s high-risk score on an assessment and directed the case be closed in April 2013.

The next month, paramedics arrived at the Palmdale home to find Gabriel not breathing. His skull was cracked, three ribs were broken and his skin was bruised and burned. He had BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. Two teeth had been knocked out. 

Merritt’s attorney has suggested that the escalation of violence occurred after the case was closed and the family was no longer under the supervision of the child services department. According to testimony of a detective assigned to the case, Gabriel’s brother said the boy was shot with metal BBs and had his teeth knocked out in the weeks before his death, and alleged violence at the hands of Aguirre increased after he thought Gabriel had taken a knife and a credit card. 

Shelly Albert, Clement’s attorney, asserted that the four social workers are the target of selective prosecution and that other social workers and mandated reporters, including sheriff’s deputies who responded to abuse reports, are being given a pass. Garcia, the boy’s teacher, said she never spoke directly with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Several deputies who went to the home to conduct welfare checks have been disciplined, according to sheriff’s officials. None, officials said, have lost their job or faced prosecution.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

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