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L.A. County moves to fire four social workers after boy’s death

Gabriel Fernandez died in May after suffering a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns, and the case has prompted public outrage. His mother and her boyfriend have been charged with murder and torture, and county officials have moved to fire four social workers involved in the case.

In an unusually swift and aggressive response, Los Angeles County officials have moved to fire four child welfare workers they say were responsible for serious lapses in the case of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who died after allegedly being tortured by his mother and her boyfriend.

The May death of Gabriel Fernandez, whom paramedics found with a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns, came after the county’s Department of Children and Family Services received and discounted a long series of complaints of abuse.

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“There were so many red flags in this case that just didn’t go heeded,” said Philip Browning, head of the department. He said an internal investigation found crucial missteps by employees. Two social workers and two supervisors received letters Tuesday notifying them that the agency intends to fire them.

The details of Gabriel’s death, first reported by The Times, prompted outrage from the public and child advocates, several of whom have appeared at the county Board of Supervisors’ weekly meetings to demand action.

The relatively quick decision to terminate the employees marked a departure for an agency that typically has conducted lengthy investigations and imposed less severe penalties, even when children under its supervision have died from neglect and abuse. A recent county review of 15 deaths of children found dozens of serious errors committed by caseworkers, and only one instance of an employee being fired.

Child-welfare advocates said Tuesday’s announcement was a welcome change.

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“It is unusual for it to be this quick and also for it to be this severe, in my experience,” said Dilys Tofteson Garcia, executive director of CASA, which trains volunteer advocates for foster children. “I think that is a good sign.”

The dismissals fit with promises by Browning, who took over the beleaguered agency last year, to increase accountability, she said. “It aligns with what he’s been saying since he got there. I think it sends a message to the whole system.”

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Rescuers were summoned to Gabriel’s home May 22 and found him barely breathing. He died in the hospital two days later. His mother and her boyfriend have been charged with murder and torture.

Social workers missed numerous warning signs at the home, according to county documents. Gabriel had previously written a note saying he was contemplating suicide, the records show. His teacher told authorities he often appeared bruised and battered at school. He had bruises on his face from BB pellets.

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Several investigations were launched. One complaint was determined to be inconclusive and the remainder were judged “unfounded.”

At the time of Gabriel’s death, another allegation of child abuse was pending in his file.

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The four employees sent termination notices Tuesday were those most involved with Gabriel’s case, Browning said. The workers — whose names have not been released — were placed on desk duty shortly after the boy’s death, as county officials launched an investigation. Other employees who were “peripherally involved” in the case received warning letters and reprimands.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes Palmdale, unexpectedly disclosed the move to fire the employees at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, in response to a public comment from a woman who identified herself as Gabriel’s cousin.

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The relative, Rosanna Lucero, had pressed the elected board members about the case. She said multiple reports of Gabriel being abused were filed with his teacher, law enforcement and the social worker assigned to the case.

“They did nothing. And he died a horrific death, which was physical, emotional and very visual,” she said. “I don’t understand why nothing has been done to these workers yet. I myself, plus a whole wide community, would like to know and demand why and what is going to be done with these workers.”

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After the meeting, Amanda Nevarez, a friend of Gabriel’s family who created a Facebook page called Gabriel’s Justice, said she was heartened to hear that officials intend to fire the workers. “For once, we need to start listening to children when they say they are hurt,” she said.

Several board members said bold action was required. “There was a compelling need to act,” board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “There are things that can’t or shouldn’t be tolerated, and the death of a child that is attributable to neglect or inaction or dereliction of duty certainly is grounds for termination.”

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After the boy’s death, county supervisors convened a blue-ribbon commission on child protection that is scheduled to hold its first meeting this week. The panel is tasked with recommending reforms in the Department of Children and Family Services over the next several months.

In the past, the department moved more slowly, investigating the entire history of agency involvement in child death cases before taking action, Browning said. In this case, the initial investigation focused on the last two years.

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Gabriel’s case presented the first major crisis for Browning, who has rankled many of his employees with critical public comments about the handling of Gabriel’s case.

In a widely circulated letter to Browning after employees involved in the case were placed on desk duty, caseworker Jerry Dominguez said the department was too quick to scapegoat staff members.

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“The suggestion is that our colleagues were somehow unaware or not focused on child safety, that this priority was somehow lost on the consciousness of our colleagues,” wrote Dominguez, who works in the agency’s Palmdale office. “Really? Even the appearance of this suggestion is beyond the pale. It’s insulting and condescending and simply false.”

Browning sent a department-wide memo Tuesday, notifying employees of the decision to fire the four workers, and seeking to reassure other workers that their efforts were appreciated.

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“I know that staff are working long hours under arduous conditions to locate placements for children, reunite families and keep children safe,” he wrote.

The workers facing dismissal will have a chance to respond and appeal the action to the county’s Civil Service Commission. That panel can reduce the severity of disciplinary actions or throw out cases entirely if no clear violation of rules is shown or the worker had no previous record of problems.

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County officials said that in their study of 15 child deaths, they found only one social worker who was fired, and that case involved falsifying a report.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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