Prosecutors charged four Los Angeles County social workers with child abuse, claiming that their negligence reached the level required for criminal liability for a boy’s gruesome death.
The four, two of which were supervisors, were also charged with falsifying public records.
The Department of Children and Family Services said Thursday that the four individuals were fired after further investigation into the 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale. “In our rigorous reconstruction of the events surrounding Gabriel’s death, we found that four of our social workers had failed to perform their jobs. I directed that all of them be discharged,” the department’s director, Philip Browning, said in a statement.
One of the four individuals managed to appeal his termination in the county’s Civil Service Commission and has since then been reinstated–but Children’s Services are eager to appeal that ruling in court.
Prosecuting welfare workers for physical abuse caused by another is rare but not unheard of. In New York in 2011 a child welfare worker and her supervisor were charged with negligent homicide in the death of a 4-year-old girl. They pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges shortly after being charged.
District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison said this is the first case of this nature to arise in L.A, perhaps even in the state.
An arrest warrant filed March 28 identifies the four Los Angeles social workers as Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, Patricia Clement, 65, Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60. Merritt, one of the supervisors, successfully fought against his dismissal. All four were scheduled to be arraigned in the criminal case on Thursday, but their arraignment was postponed until April 21. Gabriel died May 24, 2013, of injuries that included a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns across his body.
His mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, have yet to plead guilty to murder. Prosecutors have said that the death penalty is being considered.
If convicted of child abuse and falsifying records, the social workers could face upwards as 10 years in prison. “Social workers play a vital role in society. We entrust them to protect our children from harm,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Thursday in announcing the charges. “When their negligence is so great as to become criminal, young lives are put at risk.”
The Department of Children and Family Services had opened a case file on Gabriel on Oct. 31, 2012, more than six months before he died, and Lacey said it was the social workers’ moral and legal obligation to protect his life.
Prosecutors say Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs that Gabriel was suffering from increasing physical abuse and that his family had stopped putting effort into family matters. They say Bom and Merritt, as supervisors, knew or should have known those reports were false. “By minimizing the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered, these social workers allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused,” Lacey said.
In the New York case, Administration for Children’s Services caseworker Damon Adams and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, were charged with criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a child in the death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce, who was brutally beaten before being chained to a bed and killed. Adams pleaded guilty in 2013 to misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records, official misconduct and endangering the welfare of a child. Bell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child.