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Crime & Justice

Will criminal charges against 4 social workers improve LA's child welfare system?




Gabriel Fernandez, 8, of Palmdale, was tortured and murdered, allegedly by his mother and her boyfriend. Four county child services workers involved with his case have been notified they will be fired.
Gabriel Fernandez, 8, of Palmdale, was tortured and murdered, allegedly by his mother and her boyfriend. Four county child services workers involved with his case have been notified they will be fired.
NBC L.A.

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Four former L.A. County social workers were ordered this week to stand trial for the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

The four were supposed to protect the boy, who was in the care of his mother and her boyfriend. But Fernandez was found tortured to death – burned, shot with BB pellets and doused in pepper spray.

The mother and boyfriend have been charged with murder.

And the social workers overseeing his case are charged with child abuse and falsifying records.

But will prosecutions bring effective changes to the child welfare system in Los Angeles?

Take Two talks with Richard Gelles, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and author of, "Out of Harm's Way: Creating an Effective Child Welfare System."

Interview highlights

What are the challenges that social workers face when they ID a child who may be at risk?

Hindsight is 20/20. You've got 6 million children reported for child abuse in the United States every year, and 2,000 who die.

It's difficult on your best day to do risk assessment.

Let me give you two problems that the system has.

One: you and I and my taxi driver would know what to do. But the child welfare system has two conflicted objectives.

One is ensuring the safety and well-being of children, and the second is to preserve families. ...

Second: there are no tools – adequate, reliable, valid tools – that case workers can bring to bear in determining how risky the situation is for a child.

They're left to making their clinical judgment which, to make a long story short, is about as valuable and accurate as taking a quarter out of your pocket and flipping it.

Shortly after charges were filed against the social workers in the Gabriel Fernandez case, the LA Department of Children and Family services removed children from homes at a higher rate. Is that the goal?

That's not the goal. That's simply a knee-jerk, pendulum reaction.

They're not using any kind of judgments in doing that. They're simply covering their behinds.

Do you think prosecution of workers who fail kids will actually change the system?

Maybe. They will not be frequent, these prosecutions, and it depends on whether there's a punishment at the end of the road.

The real problems lies not in prosecuting. The real problem lies in looking where the weak link in the system is, and it's supervision.

We're paying supervisors to make sure the workers do their job. When the workers are not doing their job and falsifying data, you have to move up the chain of command one step and say, "Why are we paying the supervisor?"

Listen to the full interview by clicking the blue audio player above.