Social Workers Charged in Death of 8-Year-Old Gabriel Fernandez

Gabriel Fernandez died a day after he was found not breathing in his mother's Palmdale home on May 22, 2013

Four Southern California social workers have been charged with child abuse and falsifying public records in the beating death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez three years ago.

Social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, and Patricia Clement, 65, and supervisors Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60, were each charged March 28 with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sergio C. Tapia II rejected a request by defense attorneys to release the four on their own recognizance, noting that the charges are "serious" and involve a "situation where there was the death of a child,'' while acknowledging the four defendants voluntarily came to court and none has a criminal record.

The judge set bail for each of the four at $100,000, despite Deputy District Attorney Ana Maria Lopez's request for $155,000 bail for each defendant. The prosecutor told the judge the allegations are "very serious" and the consequences are "dire."

All four were expected to post bond late Thursday afternoon. They are due back in court April 21 for arraignment.

The charges stem from the May 24, 2013, death of Gabriel.

Gabriel was not breathing when he was found May 22, 2013 in his mother's Palmdale home, months after a case was opened by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. He never regained consciousness and died the following day.

Gabriel suffered a fractured skull, several broken ribs and cigarette burns, among numerous other injuries. 

His mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 31, and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, 35, are awaiting trial, charged with his murder. Prosecutors announced last summer they would seek the death penalty against the couple. Both had agreed to accept life sentences as part of a plea deal in 2014, but Aguirre later changed course.

In the criminal court case, testimony revealed that Gabriel was beaten with bats and a club that knocked out his teeth. He was shot with a BB gun and pepper spray. He also was whipped with the metal part of a belt over eight months in a heartbreaking case that sparked widespread outrage and a move to overhaul the county’s social services, which many felt had failed Gabriel. The boy had been repeatedly removed from his mother’s care in the years before his death, and more than 60 abuse reports were made by family members, neighbors, teachers and others.

Charges against the four social workers are detailed in an arrest warrant complaint filed March 28 against Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, and their respective supervisors, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt. Each defendant is charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records, according to a statement from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office.

"Social workers play a vital role in society," said District Attorney Jackie Lacey. "We entrust them to protect our children from harm. When their negligence is so great as to become criminal, young lives are put at risk."

The social workers displayed "willful disregard" for Gabriel's well-being, according to the district attorney's statement.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services opened a case involving the Fernandez family on Oct. 31, 2012, about six months before the boy's death.

Rodriguez and Clement are accused of falsifying reports intended to document signs of "escalating physical abuse," according to the district attorney's office. The reports also are required to document whether family members are participating in DCFS efforts to help. 

Bom and Merritt knew or should have know they were approving false reports, according to prosecutors. Those reports "conflicted with the evidence of Gabriel's deteriorating physical well-being," the district attorney said.

Gabriel remained at his family's home until his death.

"By minimizing the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered, these social workers allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused," Lacey said.

If convicted, each defendant faces up to 10 years in state prison.

The four workers were fired after the boy's death, but Merritt was later reinstated. The outcome of a separate trial to reverse the civil service commission ruling could ultimately impact Merritt's long-term employment position, but a judge ruled in January that in the meantime, he should be reinstated.

A hearing in the Merritt case is scheduled for next month.

DCFS Director Philip Browning said the department conducted a "rigorous reconstruction" of events that led to Gabriel's death and found the workers failed to perform their jobs. He did not comment directly on the criminal charges. 

"Every day, the Department of Children and Family Services protects the safety of thousands of vulnerable children," Browning said in a statement. "On rare and tragic occasions, such as in the case of Gabriel, children have died at the hands of family members.

"Although I will have no specific comment on the case as it moves through the courts, I want to make it unambiguously clear that the defendants do not represent the daily work, standards or commitment of our dedicated social workers, who, like me, will not tolerate conduct that jeopardizes the well-being of children. For the vast majority of those who choose this demanding career, it is nothing short of a calling."

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