L.A. County goes to court to stop social worker from getting job back

Court order sought to keep social worker who oversaw notorious Gabriel Fernandez case from returning to work

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is going to court in an effort to block the return of a social worker who supervised the case of a Palmdale boy who was beaten to death. 

Gregory Merritt successfully appealed his firing to L.A. County's civil service commission. 

County departments usually abide by the commission's findings, but Philip Browning, the county's child welfare chief, said Tuesday that he is taking the matter to court after determining that Merritt had "egregiously" missed multiple opportunities to save 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

A department spokesman said Merritt would not be returning to work as a result of the county's decision to file a petition in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Since Merritt's 2013 firing, he has not been paid. Department spokesman Armand Montiel was unable to say whether Merritt will draw pay while the matter is appealed in court. 

The 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. And 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 department guidelines call for.

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.

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