By Diana Ta
“I love you until you die,” was one of the many messages 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez from Palmdale wrote to his mother. Except Gabriel died from a fatal beating by the hands of his own mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her partner, Isauro Aguirre, ten days after Mother’s Day in 2013.
Gabriel’s tragic case was made famous through Netflix’s recent release, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” which fired up many emotions from the community, teachers, attorneys, law-enforcement, and social workers all across America. The docuseries show how his mother and her boyfriend abused and tortured him over a period of eight months and “prompts questions about the system’s protection of vulnerable children.”
But Gabriel’s case is far from being the last of its kind. In fact, the latest data from the Children’s Bureau indicate that the number of children who suffered from maltreatment and child fatalities have only increased since 2015, with infants and young children continuing to be among the highest victims of abuse and neglect. Similar cases such as Anthony Avalos (age 10), Noah Cuatro (age 4), and Andrew “AJ” Freund Junior (age 5) all ended in the same fate as Gabriel.
The Children’s Bureau reported approximately 3,534,000 child abuse investigations in 2018—that’s about 9,682 investigations of child abuse per day. Moreover, about 678,000 of those children were determined to be victims of maltreatment, which is more than double the population of Lancaster and Palmdale combined.
Now, more than ever, experts argue that children are especially vulnerable to abuse due to the “stay-at-home” order and that the coronavirus could cause a child abuse epidemic. Children and families are now forced to stay at home in violent situations with their abusers and there are no teachers or counselors around to help report any suspected abuse. Children like Gabriel are going unchecked and forgotten at home. While others are petitioning to classify golfing as essential during COVID-19 or mourning the loss of being able to go to the beach and socialize with friends, many children are fighting for their lives because they are not “safer at home.”
Research shows that as stress levels among parents increase, so does physical abuse and neglect of children (American Psychological Association). Furthermore, children living in poverty are 5 times more likely to experience more abuse and neglect than children and families in higher socioeconomic status (CDC). With these combined circumstances it is only a matter of time until we see this surge of child abuse. Who will we blame for these future child abuse deaths?
The District Attorney believed prosecuting the four social workers on Gabriel’s case would stop stories similar to Gabriel. But instead, it spiked panic in social workers and possibly led to unnecessary and excessive removals. As a former social worker, I witnessed Bobby Cagle’s efforts to close gaps in the system by hiring more trained employees in an attempt to lower case loads. But the reality is, the turnover rate of child welfare trainees is between 46-54%—that’s about half of the new employees that were supposed to help lower caseloads.
We simply cannot put all the blame on social workers and DCFS for child abuse deaths. Instead, just as we seek “Justice for Gabriel” we must seek immediate justice for all children and prevent the exponential growth of cases like Gabriel’s during this pandemic. Mayor Eric Garcetti can urge for the reinstatement of schools with a thoughtful plan for social distancing through a hybrid-learning program. Unless we have more supervision, accessible resources, and better safety plans for these vulnerable children, cases like Gabriel will continue to happen.