Two former social workers and their supervisors, who are accused of failing to protect an 8-year-old Palmdale boy from deadly abuse by his mother and her then-boyfriend, pleaded not guilty this week to child abuse and falsifying records.
Stefanie Rodriguez, 32, Patricia Clement, 66, Kevin Bom, 37, and Gregory Merritt, 61, were fired from their jobs following an internal investigation into the May 24, 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez.
On March 20, the four were ordered to stand trial on one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying records. Each defendant faces up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.
They are set to return to court April 27 for a pretrial hearing.
Pearl Fernandez, 33, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 36, are awaiting trial on a murder charge stemming from her son’s death. The District Attorney’s Office plans to seek the death penalty against the two.
Following a preliminary hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar found that the social workers and their superiors had a duty to protect the boy and had plenty of reason to suspect that the youngster might be seriously injured or killed.
“Red flags were everywhere, yet no referrals were ever made for a medical exam,” Villar said, citing reports of injuries by Gabriel’s teacher, who took photos, and a welfare office worker.
“The abuse was clearly escalating. Reckless and criminal negligence is found here,” the judge ruled.
Clement’s attorney, Shelly Albert, told reporters early this month that the prosecution was “an aberration” and said it amounted to holding the social workers “vicariously liable for acts of the parents.”
Gabriel’s death prompted a firestorm of criticism of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services over reports that social workers repeatedly visited the family’s home in response to allegations of abuse but left the boy in his mother’s custody.
James Barnes, one of two attorneys for Merritt, told reporters following the preliminary hearing that Villar’s ruling was “totally incorrect legally,” contending the legal duty that the social workers had was not to the child, but to control the mother’s behavior.
There was simply not enough evidence for the Department of Children and Family Services to take the child away from his mother, the defense attorney said.
He said the escalating violence cited by the judge occurred months after Merritt had already closed the case file on Gabriel. The only complaint his client was aware of was bruising on the boy’s bottom, and parents are allowed by law to use corporal punishment, Barnes said.
“My client and the others are being scapegoated,” he said, calling the case an excuse for DCFS’ lack of sufficient staffing to handle child abuse cases.
Palmdale elementary school teacher Jennifer Garcia testified that she called Rodriguez multiple times to report that Gabriel said his mother punched him and shot him in the face with a BB gun. Her first call came more than six months before Gabriel was killed.
An autopsy showed the child had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns over his body, according to authorities.