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County panel erred in blocking firing of social worker involved in child torture case, judge rules

Gabriel Fernandez
Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was allegedly murdered by his mother and her boyfriend, is shown here in undated family photographs.
(handout / )

A Los Angeles County judge ruled Thursday that the county’s disciplinary appeals board made a series of errors in its decision to reinstate one of the supervising social workers who failed to remove 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez from his home before he was tortured and killed.

Superior Court Judge James Chalfant sent the case back to the county’s civil service commission for a new hearing to decide Gregory Merritt’s fate. In the meantime, Merritt will once again be terminated and his pay will stop.

In April, Los Angeles County prosecutors charged Merritt, Clement and two other social workers who handled portions of the case with felony child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with Gabriel’s case.

The social workers have not yet entered a plea.

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The civil service commission’s prior decision to reverse Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning’s firing of Merritt and reinstate him with a 30-day suspension was “not supported by the evidence,” Chalfant said.

The five civil service commissioners — who are appointed by the board of supervisors and draw from the fields of law, county lobbying, political fundraising and human resources — have acknowledged that they did not read the full case file before rendering their decision and instead followed their usual practice of relying on the findings of a lower-level hearing officer appointed to the case.

But Chalfant said the commission erred when it failed to make a finding that Merritt should have supervised the case more closely because he knew the social worker under his supervision had a history of poor performance.

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Chalfant said that the commission made mistakes on “a whole series of issues” regarding how Merritt had conducted himself.

The judge also noted that Merritt and the social worker he supervised, Patricia Clement, had received information that Gabriel’s mother was allegedly hitting him with a belt buckle, that he had bruises on his back, that he had written a suicide note and that he had been shot with a BB gun.

Nevertheless, Merritt approved “without comment or investigation” Clement’s proposal to override the family’s “risk score” in order to close the case.

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The civil service commission’s decision to reverse the decision to fire Merritt was unanimous, and Commissioner Z. Greg Kahwajian said at the time: “The idea that all of the responsibity rests with Mr. Merritt is really a stretch, in my view.”

Prosecutors allege that county Department of Children and Family Services 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.”

Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend are awaiting trial on charges of capital murder and a special circumstance of torture. They have pleaded not guilty.

The pair are accused of beating Gabriel to death after dousing him with pepper spray, forcing him to eat his own vomit and locking him in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams, according to court records. Detectives who searched the family’s apartment found a wooden club covered in Gabriel’s blood.

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In the months before the boy was killed, several agencies had investigated allegations of abuse without removing him from the home. Shortly before his death, Merritt and Clement decided to close Gabriel’s case.

At the time, Clement had “skeleton” case notes for at least one visit, leading Children and Family Services chief Philip Browning to later testify that he questioned whether she had actually gone to the home. Other required visits had not been done at all, according to case records.

A core responsibility of supervising social workers is to review case notes.

Merritt “did not look at the file when he closed the case and the undisputed testimony is that he is required to do so,” Chalfant said.

Follow me on Twitter: @gtherolf

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