In 2012, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez . . . died. Inadvertently cut down by a stray bullet in a drive by neighborhood gang shooting? Nope. Car accident? Nope. Brain tumor? Nope.
Gabriel was tortured and killed in his own “home.” The dead boy’s mother and her boyfriend are awaiting trial on charges of murder and a special circumstance of torture. They have of course pleaded not guilty. After all, their lawyers have bills to pay. I guess the poor boy’s long term record of obvious abuse must have been committed by someone else, some mysterious intruder. Over and over. And, somehow, this repeated pattern of abuse also went undetected by the “innocent” mother and boyfriend.
How Did It Happen?
You understand how this could have happened, right? Not only did the mother and her boyfriend not abuse young Gabriel, but they also didn’t notice that someone else was systematically doing so! Just a simple oversight. An innocent mistake. An . . . oops! Knew they just forgot something, right? To empty the trash. Oh, yeah, and to call the authorities. Anyone might have missed the systemic abuse.
Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil
But someone didn’t miss it. The authorities were apparently aware of what was happening to poor Gabriel. 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, all according to court records. Detectives who searched the family’s apartment all found a wooden club covered in his blood. The mother and her boyfriend somehow missed all of this.
All of this . . . missed? Misunderstood? Misinterpreted? That was a lot of . . . missing. Someone should have taken the steps necessary to save Gabriel. When they could have. When they should have.
The FOUR Los Angeles County Social Workers
Four Los Angeles County social workers have now—three years later—finally been charged with . . . felony child abuse and falsifying public records. Even though authorities reportedly had numerous warnings of the ongoing abuse, trivialized what was going on, and allowed the helpless boy to remain at “home” and continue to be abused. Until he was dead.
More specifically: In the months before Gabriel was killed, county child protection caseworkers and sheriff ’s deputies investigated allegations of abuse without removing Gabriel from the “home.” The social workers were aware that the boy had written a suicide note and had a BB pellet embedded in his chest. Yet, according to county records, he was not sent for medical treatment or mental health assessment.
Additionally, the boy’s teacher said she made repeated phone calls reporting evidence of abuse, but claims the caseworkers disregarded her calls. She did the right thing, right? She did everything she could do. Right? Wrong! Easy to be a backseat driver, but if I was the teacher and caseworkers were ignoring my repeated calls, I would have called lawyer Gloria Allred—who’s never seen a case that didn’t warrant at least one press conference—and made sure the whole world knew what was going on.
Shortly before Gabriel’s death, officials actually decided to close his case! Can you believe this? (If I wrote about this in one of my murder mystery novels you would criticize it for not being believable.)
(Editor’s Note: I believe in innocent until proven guilty. These four “devoted” social workers are entitled to their day in court. But what more do we need? They obviously knew they were guilty of not doing their job. Why else would they have falsified the records? Or at least put themselves into a position where they could be accused of doing so? I guess it’s always possible that whomever—besides the mother and her boyfriend—must have done these horrendous things to Gabriel also falsified the public records to protect the four social workers. Gee, maybe it was a relative of one of the social workers. Someone to explain why all of these accused are innocent, as they each claim.)
Prosecutors say the social workers’ actions (inactions seems more accurate to me) were so troubling that the rare step of filing criminal charges was warranted. Really? Then how come it took three years for the charges to be filed? And why don’t the charges include negligent homicide? Gabriel was killed. On their watch.
When someone driving under the influence plows into another vehicle and kills another, the charges include negligent homicide—and a longer jail sentence than these social workers will ever see. Are these four social workers—if proven guilty as charged—deserving of anything less than a convicted DUI killer? Was their duty to Gabriel any less than the duty of a DUI who kills someone while drunk? Were these caseworkers any less responsible for Gabriel’s death than a DUI killer behind the wheel who takes another’s life?
I know it’s hard to believe, but there’s still more to this story.
The Social Workers’ Supervisor
The supervisor of the four social workers said that his department conducted a “rigorous” reconstruction of the events, found that his four subordinates had failed to perform their jobs (duh!), and caused each of them to be fired. He said he would not put up with this disgraceful performance, but he did just that. Anyone responsibly supervising social workers responsible for the lives and welfare of helpless minors who depend on them would have insisted on and implemented an audit system that would have revealed the dereliction in this case before it was too late.
The Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission
Three of the four social workers did not fight their termination. However, remarkably, one of them did and, even more remarkably, the Civil Service Commission unanimously reinstated him with full back pay and benefits (but for a 30-day suspension) because he has a long record of service otherwise unblemished! How much blemish does it take? Has the Commission not heard of zero tolerance, especially when minor lives are at stake? I wonder how the Commission feels about reinstating this social worker now charged with felony child abuse and falsifying public records?
Apportioning The Blame
Can there hardly be a clearer example of dysfunction in L.A. County government, especially in the Civil Service Commission? I don’t think so.
Look at all the people who knew or should have known what was happening to Gabriel: Four social workers and Gabriel’s teacher. A social services department that should have had an audit system in place that would have revealed the patent dereliction in this case. A school system that should have required the teacher to work her way up the school system hierarchy until Gabriel received the attention he was due. A Civil Service Commission that unanimously reinstated the terminated and criminally charged caseworker who apparently felt little, if any, culpability and wasn’t about to give up his $165,000 a year job without a fight.
I understand the balancing process argument. We want to keep families together, and social workers may start pulling children from their families prematurely out of fear for their jobs, and possible legal liability. But what about their moral liability? If they can’t take the heat, and the responsibility, then they ought to get out of the kitchen. They’re simply in the wrong job.
And that goes double for the Civil Service Commissioners. Sure, we count on them to protect our police, and firefighters and other civil servants from unfair, politically motivated push-back. I get that. But, c’mon, is it really that hard to distinguish a civil servant properly doing his or her job from the ones involved here who weren’t?
Four social workers, one classroom teacher, the Los Angeles County Social Services Department, the school system in which Gabriel was a student. They are all to blame for Gabriel’s unnecessary death. If they are politically content to maintain the status quo, the Civil Service Commission, and the lawmakers who oversee the Commission, will all be to blame . . . for the next Gabriel.
Just ask Gabriel.
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