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This L.A. County panel is facing scrutiny for reinstating a social worker later charged in a boy’s death

Social worker supervisor Gregory Merritt, with attorney Darcy Calkins, appears in court earlier this month.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A Civil Service Commission decision allowing a Los Angeles County child welfare manager to return to his job just months before he was charged with falsifying records in the torture death of a child is placing new scrutiny on the panel.

The supervisor, Gregory Merritt, was charged in the high-profile case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who died three years ago. His mother and stepfather are accused of torturing and killing the boy.

County officials wanted to fire Merritt and three other social workers who authorities said had missed repeated signs of abuse in Gabriel’s case. But the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission voted unanimously to reinstate Merritt to his $116,000-a-year job, saying his actions did not merit termination.

Now, some county officials are calling for changes to the five-member commission, which is appointed by the Board of Supervisors to handle appeals when employees want to challenge a disciplinary action.

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For decades, governors from both major parties, legislators and taxpayer watchdog groups nationwide have taken aim at civil service commissions, contending that they are too soft on employee discipline.

In Los Angeles County, the commission has been a frequent target of criticism by county department heads who accused it of thwarting their efforts to get rid of problem employees.

At Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, managers claimed that the commission kept them from firing or effectively disciplining staff, including nurses accused of contributing to patient injuries.

Supervisors at juvenile detention facilities said the commission blocked their efforts to deal with workers accused of abusing detainees. The U.S. Department of Justice eventually placed the county under federal oversight.

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In 2011, an internal county review found 15 instances in which children died of abuse due to “egregious” errors by children’s services staffers. Sometimes the same social workers were involved in multiple fatalities. One employee involved in those 15 fatalities was fired. The report blamed poor performance evaluations and Civil Service Commission rules for the fact that more workers were not disciplined.

“Some of the decisions that the Civil Service Commission has made over the years have been the source of very deep frustration to the board and to the public,” former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

But others strongly defend the commission, saying it provides a strong check on unfair discipline and petty politics on the part of county managers.

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Bob Schoonover, president of the union representing L.A. County social workers, said county leaders are using Merritt as a “scapegoat rather than address the real systemic issues” facing the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

Philip Browning, the department head who fired Merritt, said he was puzzled by the commission’s decision to reinstate Merritt.

When an employee challenges a disciplinary action, the commission assigns the case to one of its hearing officers before going to the full panel.

Jeffrey E. Hauptman heard Merritt’s appeal. In a decision that was later affirmed by the commission, he wrote that “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.”

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Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the commissioners — who work in law, county lobbying, political fundraising and human resources — were wrongly advised by county lawyers that they could not impose punishment worse than the 30-day suspension Hauptman had recommended.

They could, in fact, have voted to rehear the case themselves and make an entirely new decision on Merritt’s fate, she said.

After Merritt’s reinstatement, Kuehl said she identified several areas that she believes require policy changes.

Cases like Merritt’s often hinge on complex employment law, Kuehl said, yet there is no requirement that hearing officers have any legal training.

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She said she was troubled to learn that officers are not assigned to specific county departments, which would let them develop deeper understanding of specialized jobs.

The county, she added, needs to consider creating special units of hearing officers to handle reviews for social workers, sheriff’s deputies and others who deal with life-and-death decisions and are governed by a complex set of rules.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said she disagreed with her appointee’s decision to reinstate Merritt, adding that “reform most definitely has to happen. The current process is antiquated and it has to change.”

Some states, including Georgia, Indiana and Colorado, have phased out of civil service commissions entirely for many employees, making it easier to fire workers.

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Defenders argue that the commissions protect workers from nepotism, political patronage and discrimination.

Hauptman is not a lawyer, but he said he was well-equipped to handle Merritt’s case. He noted he has worked in human resources at the county for decades, including six years as the interim human resources director for the Department of Children and Family Services.

“The supervisors,” he said, “are taking a lot of political heat because of the bad situation at DCFS, but my decision is based solely on the testimony and evidence at the hearing, and I stand by my decision.”

Hauptman also rejects criticism by friends and family of Gabriel that the Civil Service Commission is too friendly to employee union interests.

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“The hearing officers certainly are not in the pocket of anyone, but I might say some members of the Board of Supervisors might be because of the political contributions they receive from the unions,” he said.

Officials at the social workers’ employee union, SEIU Local 721, said they expect the commission’s decision will be vindicated when a criminal court acquits the social workers, who were charged with child abuse and falsifying public records. The four have not yet entered pleas.

“I understand people are making an emotional argument against the Civil Service Commission, but it’s fair to say that we believe in the process and that it should be followed,” said Najeeb Khoury, deputy general counsel for the union.

Veronica Luna, a social worker in the Pasadena office of DCFS, said at a rally this week that “this incident that happened in the Palmdale office could have happened in any office because we don’t have enough workers and caseloads are too high.”

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Twitter: @gtherolf

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