Justices with the California 2nd District Court of Appeal threw out the case Monday against four former social workers who faced criminal charges in the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.
Gabriel died in May 2013 after months of torture and abuse, according to prosecutors. His mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, are expected to spend the rest of their lives in prison for his murder.
A surprising twist in the case came in 2016 when the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged former county Department of Children and Family Services employees Kevin Bom, Stefanie Rodriguez, Gregory Merritt and Patricia Clement with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records. It marked the first time in recent memory in which child protective workers were criminally charged over the alleged mishandling of a case.
In their 2-1 decision filed Monday, the justices ruled that, because the allegations against the four social workers were based on their “alleged nonfeasance,” prosecutors had to prove that the workers either had the duty and ability to control Gabriel’s abusers or had custody or control of him. The court concluded that the workers “never had the requisite duty to control the abusers and did not have care or custody of Gabriel,” according to the opinion.
In 2016 when the workers were charged, prosecutors argued that the 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.”
“Social workers play a vital role in society. We entrust them to protect our children from harm,” Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a 2016 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.”
Rodriguez’s attorney, Lance Michael Filer, said that his client has been dealing with the case for years and that “this has been the news she’s been waiting to hear for a long time.”
“Our position has always been the same,” Filer said, “that neither she nor anyone else in her shoes should have been held criminally accountable for the unpredictable nature of criminals and that the people that actually harmed Gabriel have already had their trial and day in court.”
Prosecutors could hold another preliminary hearing in the case or take it to the California Supreme Court. The district attorney’s office could not be reached for comment Monday.
Clement’s attorney, Shelly Barbara Albert, said neither she nor Clement were focusing on what was next and instead were appreciating the appeal court’s decision.
“This has been a very difficult time for [Clement] and very stressful,” Albert said. “She’s looking forward to putting this behind her, and that’s where things are right now.”