Four Los Angeles County social workers have been charged with felony child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with the 2012 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was tortured and killed even though authorities had numerous warnings of abuse in his home.
Los Angeles County prosecutors allege that the county Department of Children and Family Services employees minimized "the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered … [and] allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused."
For the record
Social worker: In a Section A article on April 8 about criminal charges for four child protection case workers, The Times said supervising social worker Gregory Merritt earned $166,000. His total compensation in wages and benefits was $116,000.
Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were each charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records.
At their arraignment on Thursday afternoon, the defendants did not enter pleas, pending another hearing later this month. Superior Court Judge Sergio Tapia set bail for each at $100,000.
Gabriel's death sparked widespread outrage and prompted a series of reforms designed to improve how county officials monitor children who show signs of being abused. Prosecutors said the social workers' actions were so troubling that they warranted the rare step of filing criminal charges.
"Social workers play a vital role in society. We entrust them to protect our children from harm," Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement. "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."
The dead boy's mother and her boyfriend are awaiting trial on charges of 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 his blood.
In the months before the boy was killed, county child protection caseworkers and sheriff's deputies investigated allegations of abuse without removing Gabriel from the home. Shortly before Gabriel's death, officials decided to close his case.
The social workers 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, county records show.
Additionally, the boy's teacher said she made repeated phone calls reporting evidence of abuse. The caseworkers disregarded them, she said.
A complaint for an arrest warrant was filed against the workers March 28 — about three years after their alleged failings — and all were scheduled for arraignment Thursday.
Merritt was the first to arrive in court in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday morning. Asked for his reaction to the charges against him, Merritt told a reporter, "no response."
Clement, a former nun and chaplain in the county's juvenile detention centers, sobbed in court as she awaited arraignment. She, too, declined to respond to the charges, as did Bom, a supervising caseworker and father of four young children as well as an elder at his church. Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
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."
In an interview with The Times on Thursday, Browning said he had referred the social workers' case notes to the district attorney in 2013 "to make sure we didn't miss anything," but he was not aware that a criminal investigation was gathering steam, and he said he was surprised when he learned that charges were filed.
After Merritt appealed to regain his $166,000 job as a supervising social worker, the five-member civil service commission — 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 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.
County lawyers for Browning went to Los Angeles County Superior Court in hopes of overturning the civil service commission's decision. That case is ongoing, but the judge ordered Merritt's reinstatement until a decision is reached.
Browning said the performance of the four workers in the Fernandez case was the worst he had seen in any case he'd reviewed since his arrival at the agency in 2011.
"We made so much progress in the past few years," Browning said. "I don't want the morale of the department to suffer in a way that would impact services to clients.
In the months after the Fernandez case was first reported by The Times in 2013, social workers removed children from their families at a higher rate.
Browning defended the rise in removals at the time, noting that detention rates were rising statewide, but critics said social workers sometimes needlessly removed children because they were afraid to lose their jobs if something unforeseen occurred to a child under their watch.
Browning said he is worried that the charges against the social workers could spur social workers to again increase the number of children taken from homes.
"Safety is our priority, but I hope that there won't be additional detentions because of this," he said. "I hope that they will continue to make decisions based on the facts in front of them."
At a news conference Thursday in Sylmar, family and friends of Gabriel praised the arrests and decried a system they said is fraught with laziness and corruption.
"You brought this upon yourself," Emily Carranza, the boy's cousin, said of the social workers.
Carranza is part of a group of family and friends who rallied after the boy's death, determined to hold those who killed Gabriel and those who failed to protect him accountable.
The shirt she wore showed three photos of Gabriel's smiling face.
"Your conviction will be our greatest victory," she said.
Child welfare officials and prosecutors said that this was the first case in memory in which child protective caseworkers had been criminally charged in California over the alleged mishandling of a case.
Such prosecutions are also rare nationally, although New York prosecutors pursued criminal charges in recent years against two social workers who handled the fatal case of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce. In that case, the workers were initially charged with negligent homicide, but the case collapsed in a plea deal for lesser charges.
Both workers eventually pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, and that misdemeanor was subsequently knocked down to a violation when they completed hours of community service.
Times staff writer Sarah Parvini and Times researcher Scott. J. Wilson contributed to this report.