How officials failed to save Gabriel Fernandez from years of abuse, torture

The case of Gabriel Fernandez, a child who was killed after having been beaten, burned and shot with BBs, took a new twist when four social workers were charged with child abuse.

Here is summary of the case:

A horrific scene

In May 2013, paramedics arrived at a Palmdale home to find 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez 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 were knocked out of his mouth.

Gabriel died two days later.

His mother's boyfriend told authorities that he beat Gabriel repeatedly for lying and "being dirty," according to records. The child's mother and her boyfriend were charged with murder and torture. 

'Prisoner of war'

More grim details were provided in grand jury transcripts.

Gabriel's mother, Pearl Fernandez, called 911 on May 22, 2013, to report that her son was not breathing. She told sheriff's deputies who arrived at the apartment that Gabriel had fallen and hit his head on a dresser, according to testimony. When paramedics arrived, they found Gabriel naked in a bedroom, with multiple injuries. He died two days later.

"It was just like every inch of this child had been abused," testified James Cermak, a Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic.

Fernandez and her her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 34,  deliberately tortured the boy to death, hiding their tracks with forged doctor's notes and lies to authorities, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami told the grand jury.

"For eight straight months, he was abused, beaten and tortured more severely than many prisoners of war," Hatami said.

The abuse worsened in the months leading up to Gabriel's death, according to testimony from two of his siblings, both of whom are minors. They said Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces, rotten spinach and his own vomit. He slept in a locked cabinet and wasn't let out to go to the bathroom.

Fernandez and Aguirre called Gabriel gay, punished him when he played with dolls and forced him to wear girls' clothes to school, the siblings said.

Fernandez and Aguirre hit Gabriel with a metal hanger, a belt buckle, a small bat and a wooden club, Gabriel's brother said.

Their mother once jabbed Gabriel in the mouth with a bat and knocked out several teeth, according to testimony.

Missed signs of abuse

Records showed that Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services left Gabriel in the home despite six investigations into abuse allegations involving the mother over the last decade.

Gabriel had previously written a note saying he was contemplating suicide, records show. His teacher told authorities he often appeared bruised and battered at school. BB pellets left bruises across his face. All but one investigation was determined to be "unfounded."

At the time of Gabriel's death, there was yet another, unresolved allegation of child abuse in his file. That referral has lingered two months past a legally mandated deadline for completing an investigation, records show.

The social worker assigned to that case did not make first contact with the family until 20 days after the complaint was received, and then "made minimal attempts to investigate," according to an internal county report.

On multiple occasions, deputies went to the family's apartment or to Gabriel's school to investigate reports of abuse and of the boy being suicidal.

Each time, they concluded that there was no evidence of abuse and did not write a detailed report.

Timothy O'Quinn, a sheriff's homicide detective, told grand jurors that there was no indication that deputies had removed any of Gabriel's clothing to check for signs of abuse.

Investigators searching the family's apartment after Gabriel's death found blood stains, BB gun holes and a wooden club covered in his blood, according to testimony.

 'Failed to perform their jobs'

In a prepared statement issued late Thursday morning by the Department of Children and Family Services, department Director Philip Browning said the accused workers did not represent the organization.

“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. Only one appealed his termination, and he was reinstated last year by the Civil Service Commission over our strong objections,” Browning said.

“I want to make it unambiguously clear that the defendants do not represent the daily work, standards or commitment of our dedicated social workers, who, like me, will not tolerate conduct that jeopardizes the well-being of children,” Browning said. “For the vast majority of those who choose this demanding career, it is nothing short of a calling.”

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

8:01 a.m. April 8: This story was updated with comments from county children's services director.

This story was originally published at 11:20 a.m. April 7.

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