In what’s an extremely rare circumstance, the Los Angeles district attorney has charged four social workers at the L.A. Department of Child and Family Services with child abuse and falsifying records in the 2012 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.
Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, Patricia Clement, 65, and their respective supervisors Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60, have each been charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records, the L.A. District Attorney’s Office said Thursday.
All four worked for the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.
“We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel’s well-being,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a prepared statement. “They should be held responsible for their actions.”
Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend were arrested and charged in 2013. Four county workers were fired a few months later after an internal investigation, though their names were not released at the time.
Relatives of Gabriel have also sued the county’s child welfare system for wrongful death.
Gabriel’s case was originally opened by DCFS in October 2012. He was declared dead on May 24, 2013 from multiple injuries, including a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns over his body, prosecutors said.
“In the case of Gabriel, it was so horrendous, what, I guess you could say fell through the cracks, but I think what the DA is saying, it didn’t just fall through the cracks, because this crime has to be intentional," Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told KPCC.
The DA contends the four social workers had a legal duty to protect Gabriel.
Rodriguez and Clement are specifically accused of “falsifying reports that should have documented signs of Gabriel’s escalating physical abuse and the family’s lapsed participation in DCFS efforts to provide help to maintain the family.”
"One of the ways you can show intention that the negligence was so egregious that it must have been intended because no reasonable person would have been that negligent," Kuehl said. "Now that’s an uphill battle for the DA, because to say something is a crime is different from an offense for which I’d let you go from your job."
Bom and Merritt, as supervisors, should have been aware the reports conflicted with evidence from Gabriel’s case file that his physical well-being was deteriorating, and they shouldn’t have allowed him to remain at home, prosecutors contend.
Kuehl said that reforms have already been made to the Department of Children and Family Services in the three years since the crime was committed.
She said that the agency hired 1,000 new social workers to help manage the 25,000 kids in the system.
"They are underpaid and hardworking and we try to resource them as much as we can, but they really knock themselves out for the kids,” Kuehl said.
Since more social workers were hired Kuehl said that the caseload per person has decreased from about 40 to a new average of about 24.
“Reform takes time, and this Board of Supervisors is very reform-minded about our children,” Kuehl said.
In terms of funding for social issues, Kuehl said that it is not normally the highest priority for a state.
“Poverty, homelessness, children’s issues, violence in the family — these things are under-resourced in the courts, and under-resourced by the state,” Kuehl said. “These kinds of squishy areas have never been seen as being as sharply important as protecting business, or economic growth or transportation, or things that people measure with numbers.”
All four defendants face up to 10 years in state prison. At their scheduled arraignment Thursday, prosecutors are expected to ask that bail be set at $155,000.
Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times reporter who covers Los Angeles County government with an emphasis on its child welfare system; he was at the social workers’ arraignment this morning
Eugenia Weiss, MSW, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Social Work, University of Southern California
L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey was not available for an interview but released this statement.
This story has been updated.