LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced Thursday that two social workers and their supervisors were scheduled to be arraigned on felony charges in the 2013 beating and torture death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale.
Social workers Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt each face felony counts of child abuse and falsifying records. [View the criminal complaint here.]
The 30-year-old Rodriguez and 65-year-old Clement face charges they falsified reports that should have shown signs of Gabriel’s escalating physical abuse, allegedly at the hands of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her then-boyfriend Isauro Aguirre.
The 36-year-old Bom and 60-year-old Merritt face charges they should have known they were approving false reports that conflicted with the evidence of Gabriel’s deteriorating physical well-being as contained in the child’s case file, allowing him to remain at 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,” District Attorney Lacey said. “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.”
A complaint for an arrest warrant was filed on March 28, prosecutors said. The four were scheduled to be arraigned Thursday at the Foltz Criminal Justice Center, and prosecutors would ask that bail be set at $155,000 for each defendant, according to the District Attorney’s office.
If convicted, each of the four defendants could be sentenced to as much as 10 years in state prison.
Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and Isauro Aguirre are facing capital murder charges for allegedly inflicting fatal injuries on Gabriel. 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.
Rodriguez, Clement, Bom and Merritt worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and had a legal duty to protect Gabriel from the time the DCFS case was opened on Oct. 31, 2012, until he was declared dead on May 24, 2013, prosecutors said.
Gabriel died from multiple injuries, including a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns over his body.
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.
Philip Browning, director of the DCFS, said he could not comment specifically about the criminal case, but he defended the work done by his agency.
“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. “For the vast majority of those who choose this demanding career, it is nothing short of a calling.”
UPDATE: The four defendants made their first court appearance Thursday, April 7, but the arraignment was postponed to April 21. 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 any prior 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.”
Clement’s attorney, Darcy Calkins, told the judge her client was once a nun. Outside court, she said she believed her client would be exonerated of the charges. Rodriguez’s attorney, Lance M. Filer, told reporters outside court, “My client’s name will be cleared.”
Editor’s note: Story updated with additional information from City News Service.