Two former social workers and their supervisors were ordered this week to stand trial on falsifying records and child abuse charges involving the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy whose mother and then-boyfriend are charged with his murder.
The social workers and two of their supervisors—Stefanie Rodriguez, 31, 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.
All four are charged with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying records and face up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.
The boy’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, are both awaiting trial on a capital murder charge stemming from her son’s death. The District Attorney’s Office plans to seek the death penalty against the two.
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 the boy was left in the custody of his mother.
Prosecutors said the youngster had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns over his body.
Palmdale elementary school teacher Jennifer Garcia, in testimony in late January in the preliminary hearing for the foursome, said she made her first call to a child welfare hotline to report Gabriel’s injuries more than six months before he was killed.
Garcia taught first grade at Summerwind Elementary School for five years and Gabriel was a new student in her 2012 class and had a lot of behavioral issues, she said.
Gabriel was anxious about his homework and afraid to go home at times, the educator said. The first sign of abuse was when he told Garcia that his mother hit him with the buckle end of a belt and made him bleed, asking his teacher if that was “normal,” she testified.
In November 2012, Gabriel showed up with bloody scabs on his head and chunks of his hair cut off and told the teacher “his mom hit him ... punched him in the face,” Garcia said, prompting her to call Rodriguez again.
“As time went on and new injuries kept appearing, I stwas happening (with the case),” Garcia testified.
When the boy came to school in January 2013 with bruises all over his face, he first said he’d fallen down and ultimately confessed that “my mom shot me in the face with a BB gun” while making him do exercises, Garcia said.
The boy’s mother, at an earlier parent-teacher conference, had told her: “I don’t hit my kids, I make them do exercises,” Garcia testified.
Twice Gabriel asked his teacher if she could call “that lady,” though Garcia said she never told him about her own calls to the child welfare hotline. But he was also frightened about the consequences, telling Garcia at one point that when the social worker came to his house, he would get “hurt worse,” she testified.
Rodriguez told the teacher she had a regularly scheduled visit so that it wouldn’t be tied to any particular incidents, according to Garcia, who said she also tried to get counseling or other help for Gabriel.
“There (were) no services we could offer at that time,” other than a flier about family counseling to send home to his mother, the teacher said. Convinced the mother wouldn’t participate and might hurt the boy in response to seeing the flier, Garcia said she “threw it in the trash.”
Prosecutors allege that Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs of escalating physical abuse and the family’s lapsed cooperation with DCFS.
Prosecutors also contend that Bom and Merritt knew or should have known they were approving false reports that conflicted with evidence of Gabriel’s deteriorating physical health, allowing the boy to remain in the home until he died.