LOS ANGELES – Dozens of county social workers protested in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, accusing District Attorney Jackie Lacey of criminalizing child welfare work by bringing child abuse charges against four of their colleagues.
Two former county social workers and their supervisors were charged March 28 of child abuse and falsifying records stemming from the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who prosecutors said was tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend.
Social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, and Patricia Clement, 65, and supervisors Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60, are facing one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records.
The charges stem from the May 24, 2013, death of Gabriel Fernandez. According to police and prosecutors, Gabriel was a long-time abuse victim. When he died, he had a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns over his body, prosecutors said.
The boy’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, are facing a capital murder charge stemming from Gabriel’s death.
The case sparked a firestorm of criticism of the county Department of Children and Family Services over reports that the boy and his mother were repeatedly visited by social workers in response to abuse allegations, but the boy was never removed from the home.
Social workers protesting on Tuesday said the system was at fault.
Calling the district attorney’s approach “ignorant” and “unknowledgeable,” supervising children’s social worker Paula Gamboa said Gabriel’s death was caused by heavy caseloads and a lack of support for social workers.
“The root of problem is not with the individual social worker but with the broken and overburdened system in which we work,” Gamboa told the Board of Supervisors following the protest outside.
Some blamed DCFS director Philip Browning, with social worker Veronica Luna saying he had demoralized staffers and created a culture of fear.
“Social workers cannot be scapegoated,” Luna said.
Browning has defended the work done by his agency and its employees.
“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,” Browning said after charges were filed against the four former social workers. “For the vast majority of those who choose this demanding career, it is nothing short of a calling.”
Some of those working for Browning said it will now be harder to recruit and retrain social workers.
According to the District Attorney’s Office, DCFS opened a file on Gabriel’s case on Oct. 31, 2012, and maintained one until the boy’s death. Prosecutors allege that Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs of escalating physical abuse and the family’s failure to take part in DCFS efforts to help maintain the family.
Prosecutors also contend that Bom and Merritt knew or should have known they were approving false reports.
An investigation revealed that at times over an eight-month period preceding his death, Gabriel — among other instances of violent abuse — was doused with pepper spray, forced to eat his own vomit and locked in a closet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams, authorities said.
All four defendants were fired by the county following an internal investigation into the case. Merritt, however, appealed his firing, and the Civil Service Commission ordered that he be reinstated. The matter is now being appealed in court. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge recently ruled that the county must resume paying Merritt’s salary.
Merritt and the other three criminal defendants each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Lacey has said the social workers and supervisors involved in Gabriel’s case had a legal duty to protect the child.
“We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel’s well-being. They should be held responsible for their actions,” Lacey said.
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