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Why is it harder to fire an L.A. County employee than charge him with a crime?

Why is it harder to fire an L.A. County employee than charge him with a crime?
Aphoto shows Gabriel Fernandez on his 3rd birthday in 2008. (Courtesy of Emily Carranza)

The actions and ineptitude of four Los Angeles County social workers in connection with the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez were apparently bad enough for the employees to be charged with crimes, as they were on Thursday — yet still not bad enough for one of them to lose his county job. There can hardly be a clearer example of dysfunction in L.A. County government, especially in the Civil Service Commission, which last year reinstated one of the workers who has now been charged with a crime.

That dysfunction can have deadly results.

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Too often in Los Angeles County, the Civil Service Commission thwarts efforts to raise acceptable standards of performance by [county] employees.


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Gabriel died in May 2013, allegedly because of astoundingly cruel abuse at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Hospital reports showed head injuries, multiple fractures and bruises, even BB gun wounds. The two now await trial on murder charges and face possible death sentences.

No government can cure bad or abusive parenting, but Los Angeles County has a large and costly infrastructure of social workers, foster families, procedures and reviews in place to identify as many children at risk as possible and to intervene when appropriate for their safety and welfare. There are necessarily judgment calls to be made. But there are also standards and protocols, and when they are violated and preventable injuries or death result, workers can be disciplined for their failures.

Or can they? Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning reviewed the actions of the social workers involved in Gabriel's case, and fired four of them. But one, Gregory Merritt, petitioned the Civil Service Commission for reinstatement. And won. The county was then compelled to take Merritt back, with back pay and benefits. An appeal is pending.

Other county department heads have had to deal with similar situations, most notably Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who because of Civil Service Commission rulings has had to take back deputies who he has found unfit to be in uniform because of lies or other misconduct.

The civil service system is meant to protect government workers from random, personal or politically motivated retaliation, and with good reason. Public regard for government employees, including hard-working cops, teachers and social workers, has never been lower, and some measure of protection from unfair firings is appropriate. It's not inconceivable, after a tragic death like Gabriel's, that politics might make a government worker into a scapegoat.

But too often in Los Angeles County, the Civil Service Commission thwarts efforts to raise acceptable standards of performance by sheriff's deputies, social workers and other employees. The Board of Supervisors has called for higher standards but also appoints commission members and has the ultimate responsibility for solving the problem.

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