Charges filed against four former Los Angeles County social workers brought a measure of relief Thursday to a relative and friend of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, whose torture and death led to an overhaul of the county Department of Children and Family Services.
“It’s been three long years,” Gabriel’s cousin, Emily Carranza, said. “May 24th will be the third anniversary of Gabriel’s death. And I want these four social workers to be an example to all other social workers out there that are not taking their job seriously, saving the children and doing their job, that if they continue to neglect their work, that they also will be prosecuted as well.
“They took an oath to save the children, to protect them from their abusers and it’s time for them to step up and start doing this,” she said.
Social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, and Patricia Clement, 65, and supervisors Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60, were each charged March 28 with felony child abuse and falsifying public records, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
The charges stem from Gabriel’s May 24, 2013, death.
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.
Carranza is a co-founder of a group called Gabriel’s Justice that was created to call for changes in the social work and child welfare systems in light of the boy’s death.
“This is what Gabriel’s Justice is about. We’re fighting to save children and to fight against child abuse,” she said.
Amanda Nevarez, a family friend and co-founder of Gabriel’s Justice, said the social workers handling the case felt “they were above the law somehow and untouchable.” “You’re not above the law,” she said. “Just because you’re a county worker, just because you’re in a union doesn’t mean you can deliberately not do your job and cause harm, especially the kind of harm that was caused to Gabriel.”