Social worker fired over child's beating death about to get job back

A DCFS supervisor fired after the 2013 beating death of a Palmdale boy is close to getting his job back

A Department of Children and Family Services supervisor fired after the 2013 beating death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy is close to getting his job back.

L.A. County’s civil service commission issued their proposed decision this week to reinstate Gregory Merritt, despite the determination by child welfare chief Philip Browning that he had “egregiously” missed multiple opportunities to save Gabriel Fernandez.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this story said the commission had voted this week. The decision was released this week, but the actual vote occurred earlier this month.

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

The pair allegedly beat 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.

A key responsibility of supervising social workers is to review case notes. According to a brief by DCFS lawyers in support of Merritt’s firing, he knew from her performance evaluations that Clement 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 gun 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.

According to Jeffrey E. Hauptman, the commission’s hearing officer, “In the final analysis [Merritt] bears some culpability for lax supervision but not to the extent to justify his discharge after nearly 24 years of unblemished service.”

Merritt’s union representative had argued that his client was used as a scapegoat and had labored under difficult circumstances in the Palmdale office, where social workers carry some of the highest caseloads in the county.

Browning, who called Merritt’s firing one of the easiest decisions he has made, told The Times that he was dismayed by the decision and would confer with county lawyers about another possible appeal to the commission or to the Los Angeles County Superior Court. If an appeal is not filed by April 27, Merritt’s reinstatement will become final.

“I have to believe that there was not a complete understanding of the situation by the commission,” Browning said.

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