A Los Angeles County judge ruled Monday that four social workers should stand trial on child abuse and other charges in the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy they were assigned to protect, allowing prosecutors to push ahead with a case that has sent a chill through the ranks of child protection workers nationwide.
Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar said that "red flags were everywhere" during the months before Gabriel Fernandez died and that the social workers mishandled evidence of escalating abuse and failed to file timely reports on what was happening in the boy's home before he was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend in 2013. The judge said the workers' conduct amounted to criminal negligence.
"[Gabriel's mom] was in the system — that was a red flag, he missed school...had injuries, and his teacher called," Villar said. "All of this shows that the mother was uncooperative and the parties should have known at that time something was wrong."
Some defendants broke down in tears after Villar announced that the case would move forward. One of them, Patricia Clement, placed her head in her hands in disbelief.
"When the judge announced it, I wanted to throw up," she said later.
Her attorney, Shelly Albert, expressed shock at the judge's ruling.
"This is outrageous and unprecedented. My client, all of them, they did what they were supposed to do," she said.
Gabriel died after months of torture and abuse, prosecutors say. The boy's mother and her boyfriend are awaiting trial on capital murder charges and have pleaded not guilty.
But the case took a highly unusual turn last year when prosecutors accused the four former Department of Children and Family Services employees of felony child abuse and falsifying public records.
Prosecutors alleged that caseworkers Clement and Stefanie Rodriguez and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt ignored evidence of repeated abuse and minimized Gabriel's injuries. They each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The case marked the first time in Los Angeles that county social workers faced criminal charges in performing their duties, prosecutors said, and is one of only a handful of such cases filed nationwide in recent decades. The decision by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to prosecute the employees surprised many child protection experts, who have expressed fear that the decision could hamper efforts to recruit social workers for public sector jobs.
The standard of proof to hold a defendant to answer at a preliminary hearing is far less than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold required to convict someone at a trial. Still, Monday's decision by Villar will raise alarm among child social workers, many of whom are already dealing with increased public scrutiny and high case volumes, experts said.
"It could have a real chilling effect on the desire to become a child social worker," said Rebecca Gonzales, director of government relations for the National Assn. of Social Workers' California chapter. "It is a devastating case for social workers all over the nation and especially in L.A. County."
Similar cases brought by prosecutors elsewhere have usually resulted in convictions of less serious charges or been thrown out of court.
In January, a judge dismissed felony charges against two Michigan social workers accused of involuntary manslaughter after the killing of a 3-year-old boy they had been supervising. In 2013, prosecutors allowed a New York social worker and his supervisor who had been charged with criminally negligent homicide to plead guilty to misdemeanors in connection with the death of a 4-year-old girl who had allegedly been beaten and starved to death by her mother.
Monday's ruling in Los Angeles came after a preliminary hearing in which Gabriel's first-grade teacher and other witnesses testified about their mounting concern over signs of physical abuse — facial bruises, scabs, missing tufts of hair, busted lips — and alarm that their calls to the caseworkers went unheeded.
Summerwind Elementary School teacher Jennifer Garcia said in the months before Gabriel's death, she repeatedly reported to county child service workers new signs of abuse that prosecutors say came at the hands of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
A few weeks into the 2012-13 school year, Garcia saw a facial bruise the size of a half-dollar on the boy and he revealed he was beaten with a belt buckle, drawing blood, she said. She immediately called a county child abuse hotline and received a call back from social worker Rodriguez, she testified.
In January 2013, Garcia said, Gabriel came to school with swollen eyes and a pockmarked face. At first, he said he had fallen, but he then told her, "My mom shot me in the face with a BB gun," she testified.
On two occasions, she testified, a fearful Gabriel asked, "Can you call that lady?" — referring to the county social worker he knew she had been calling. Garcia said she began to lose confidence in child protective services as months passed and Gabriel remained with his mother.
"I kind of started to feel nothing was happening," she testified.
At some point, Clement took over the case from Rodriguez.
In May 2013, paramedics arrived at the boy's Palmdale home to find Gabriel not breathing. His skull was cracked, three ribs were broken and his skin was bruised and burned. He had BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. Two teeth had been knocked out.
An internal DCFS investigator, Jessica Brown, testified that Clement underrated the danger Gabriel faced while she completed an assessment of his case. Brown testified that Clement had wrongly documented the facts in her assessment, omitting his mother's well-documented mental health problems. As a result, the assessment concluded he was at "high risk" instead of "very high risk."
Brown told the court that Clement's supervisor, Merritt, had signed off on the decision to end his unit's supervision of the child in April 2013, a month before his death.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ana Maria Lopez argued on Monday that the social workers ignored obvious signs that the abuse was escalating and that they had plenty of chances to remove the boy from his home or to bring his mother to court. The workers, she said, were supposed to provide a "safety net" for Gabriel and their supervisors were in a "leadership position" and should have done more.
Defense attorneys denied there was any wrongdoing and suggested that the escalation of violence occurred after the case was closed and the family was no longer under their clients' supervision. According to testimony of a detective assigned to the case, Gabriel's brother said the boy was shot with metal BBs and had his teeth knocked out in the weeks before his death, and alleged violence at the hands of Aguirre increased after he thought Gabriel had taken a knife and a credit card.
Albert, Clement's attorney, asserted that the four social workers are the target of selective prosecution and that other social workers and mandated reporters, including sheriff's deputies who responded to abuse reports, are being given a pass. Garcia, the boy's teacher, said she never spoke directly with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Several deputies who went to the home to conduct welfare checks have been disciplined, according to sheriff's officials. None, officials said, has been fired or faced prosecution.
In their final statements to the judge on Monday, defense attorneys argued that there was no evidence that their clients falsified any documents or could have anticipated that Gabriel would be killed.
Jim Barnes, Merritt's attorney, noted that Sheriff's Deputy Jonathan Livingston had visited the boy's home a month before his death and concluded that there was no child abuse going on. He said his client had been assigned to oversee multiple teams not just in Palmdale but also Lancaster and depended on what his social workers were telling him about their cases.
"He was overworked and understaffed," Barnes said.
Rodriguez's lawyer, Lance M. Filer, said the social worker properly investigated allegations but did not see any visible injuries on the boy.
"She did what she was supposed to do," he said.
5:40 p.m.: This story was updated with a comment from Gonzales and background about other cases against social workers across the country.
3:40 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details from Monday's court hearing.
11:28 a.m.: This story was updated with comments from Clement and her attorney as well as details from the court hearing.