LOS ANGELES – A state appeals court panel refused Thursday to reconsider its ruling that directed a lower court to dismiss charges against four social workers who were accused of failing to protect an 8-year-old Palmdale boy killed in May 2013.
Los Angeles County prosecutors had asked the three-justice panel to either re-hear or modify its opinion in the case of social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 34, and Patricia Clement, 69, and their two supervisors, Kevin Bom, 40, and Gregory Merritt, 64. The four were charged in March 2016 with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with Gabriel Fernandez‘s death.
Isauro Aguirre — the boyfriend of the child’s mother — was sentenced to death in June 2018 after being convicted of first-degree murder. Jurors found true the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture.
The boy’s mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after pleading to first-degree murder and admitting the torture allegation.
In September 2018, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli denied a motion to dismiss the charges against the social workers, calling the young boy’s death “foreseeable.”
In a Jan. 6 ruling, the appellate court panel found that there was no probable cause to hold the two social workers and their supervisors on the charges and ruled that the trial court should have granted the defense’s motion to dismiss the case against them.
Associate Justice Victoria Gerrard Chaney concurred that the four could not be charged with child abuse, but wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that they could be prosecuted as public officers under the relevant government code section.
“Allowing a social worker to evade liability for falsifying a public document would incentivize social workers to put their own interests in avoiding liability for their misdeeds above the purpose of the state’s child welfare statutory scheme, which is child safety,” Chaney wrote.
“The petitioners’ actions here prevented the system from working in whatever way it might have had they done their jobs honestly, and offers no incentive for either DCFS or individual social workers to work to reform and repair the parts of the system that may fail the children it is intended to protect,” she added. “We have, in effect, encouraged DCFS and its social workers to cover their tracks if they stumble on the cracks in the system.”
In their petition filed Tuesday, Jan. 21, for reconsideration of the decision on the social workers’ case, prosecutors wrote, “If facts known to petitioners suggested Gabriel’s caretakers would harm him, petitioners had a duty to control Pearl and Isauro, to protect Gabriel and to prevent Pearl and Isauro from murdering him. If petitioners weren’t supposed to protect Gabriel from his killers, who was? …. It was their duty to supervise and control Pearl and Isauro’s conduct when it came to how Pearl and Isauro treated Gabriel.”
An autopsy showed that the boy had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns over much of his body. His teacher testified that she called Rodriguez multiple times to report that Gabriel told her that his mother punched him and shot him in the face with a BB gun.
Defense attorneys argued that the abuse and torture escalated months after a file on the boy had been closed and that there was insufficient evidence to take him away from his mother.
A Feb. 18 pretrial hearing is scheduled in the case, which was effectively put on hold during the appellate court proceedings.
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