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4 LA County social workers to face trial in death of 8-year-old boy

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 3/20/2017 Melissa Etehad and Richard Winton

Tributes are written on a poster board during a memorial service for Gabriel Fernandez, 8, on June 12, 2013, in Sylmar, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS) © Gina Ferazzi-Los Angeles Times-TNS Tributes are written on a poster board during a memorial service for Gabriel Fernandez, 8, on June 12, 2013, in Sylmar, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS) LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles County judge ruled Monday that four social workers accused of criminal negligence in the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy they were charged with protecting should stand trial, allowing prosecutors to push ahead with a case that has sent a chill through the ranks of child protection workers nationwide.

Some defendants broke down in tears after Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar announced that the case would move forward. One of the social workers, Patricia Clement, placed her head in her hands in disbelief.

"When the judge announced it I wanted to throw up," she said later.

Clement said a range of failures led to the boy's death, including by her agency, where she worked as a social worker.

"The department doesn't do a good job. They don't understand," she said.

Her attorney, Shelly Albert, expressed surprise 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 Fernandez died in 2013 after months of torture and abuse, prosecutors say, at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. The two are awaiting trial on capital murder charges.

But prosecutors also turned the spotlight on four former Department of Children and Family Services employees, accusing them 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.

The case marked the first time in Los Angeles that county social workers faced criminal charges in performing their duties, said prosecutors, and is one of only a handful of such cases filed nationwide in recent decades. The decision by Los Angeles County District Attorney 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.

Monday's ruling 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.

The county fired the social workers, but Merritt is appealing his termination in court. All four vehemently have denied any wrongdoing.

"They are scapegoats," said Merritt's attorney, Jim Barnes. "There are plenty of other people here involved in the decision-making."

In testimony during the preliminary hearing, 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.

Merritt's attorney has suggested that the escalation of violence occurred after the case was closed and the family was no longer under the supervision of the child services department. 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 lost a job or faced prosecution.

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