Four L.A. County social workers on Wednesday asked to postpone entering pleas to felony charges in connection with the 2012 death of Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old tortured and killed even though authorities had numerous warnings of abuse in his home.
Judge Sergio C. Tapia granted the request and set the next arraignment date for June 2.
Prosecutors charged Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt each with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records.
Each is free in lieu of $100,000 bail. The charges carry up to 10 years in prison.
The case is the first time in California that social workers at a child protective services agency have been criminally prosecuted on allegations that they failed to protect a child.
The case is stirring intense debate about whether high caseloads and other systemic problems at the Department of Children and Family Services severely impeded the workers from saving Gabriel, or if their conduct was criminal despite their challenges.
The union representing social workers, SEIU 721, issued a statement Thursday saying the decision to prosecute was “unprecedented and reckless.”
Social workers also appeared in court to support the defendants, who sat stoically in the audience awaiting their hearing.
Bom, a 36-year-old elder at his church and master’s graduate of USC’s School of Social Work, held his wife’s hand. On his wrist was a plastic bracelet with the scripture verse Jeremiah 29:11.
The verse reads: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
County prosecutors allege that the 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 death sparked widespread outrage and prompted a series of reforms designed to improve how county officials monitor children who show signs of being abused. Prosecutors said the social workers’ actions were so troubling that they warranted the rare step of filing criminal charges.
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