The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is going to court in an effort to block the return of a social worker who supervised the case of a Palmdale boy who was beaten to death, it was reported Thursday.
Gregory Merritt successfully appealed his dismissal to the five-member Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission, which voted unanimously to reinstate him, imposing a 30-day suspension instead of termination.
County departments usually abide by the commission’s findings, but Philip Browning, the county’s child welfare chief, said Tuesday he is taking the matter to court after determining that Merritt had “egregiously” missed multiple opportunities to save 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A department spokesman said Merritt would not be returning to work as a result of the county’s decision to file a petition in Los Angeles County Superior Court, according to the newspaper. Since Merritt’s 2013 firing, he has not been paid.
The boy’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.
In the months before the boy was killed, several agencies investigated allegations of abuse without removing him from the home, and shortly before his death, Merritt and social worker Patricia Clement decided to close Gabriel’s case.
Browning fired Merritt, Clement and two other social workers over the case; Merritt appealed.