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Criminal Cases Dismissed Against Social Workers in Gabriel Fernandez Case

A California judge on Thursday dismissed criminal cases against four social workers accused of felony child abuse and falsifying public records involving 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, a child who later died, authorities said, from “child neglect and severe head trauma” at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Fernandez’s death was the subject of the Netflix docuseries, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.

The four defendants were social workers Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt. Their fate was all but sealed when an appeals court panel ruled Jan. 6 that that their cases should not go forward because their actions in closing out the boy’s case shortly before he died did not violate the law. Per the majority, to be convicted, the state would have to prove the social workers “either had the duty and ability to control Gabriel’s abusers or had custody or control of Gabriel.”  They did not; therefore, they were not criminally to blame.

“We conclude that the petitioners never had the requisite duty to control the abusers and did not have care or custody of Gabriel,” the court said, citing a plethora of California statutes. “We further conclude that the petitioners were not officers within the meaning of Government Code section 6200. There is, therefore, no probable cause to hold them on charges of violating those laws and the trial court should have granted the motions to dismiss.”

The trial court did just that on Thursday.

Defense attorneys for the social workers argued that the abuse Fernandez suffered got worse after the state closed out the boy’s file.  They also said the social workers did not have enough evidence to take the boy away from his mother.

“What happened to Gabriel Fernandez was an unspeakable tragedy,” said social workers’ union representative David Green (according to reporting by KTTV-TV). “It exposed problems in the child welfare system that led to important reforms, like better training and mentoring and the reduction of caseloads, so social workers aren’t trying to juggle protecting up to 60 children at once. It’s these systemic reforms, not scapegoating individual social workers, that will keep children safe.”

The little boy’s mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty to torturing and murdering Gabriel. Isauro Aguirre, the mother’s boyfriend, was sentenced to death. Aguirre beat the boy, the district attorney said, because Aguirre “believed the boy was gay.”

“Gabriel suffered numerous injuries, including a fractured skull, 12 broken ribs and burns,” the DA’s office said.

“We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel’s well-being,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in April 2016 when filing the charges. “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.”

Those were just accusations, and the appeals court disagreed.

Lacey’s office noted the dismissal of the case with a Wednesday press release which contained no comment beyond mere recaps of procedural matters and of the original charges.

[image via KTLA screengrab]

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University.  He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network who now contributes to the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only.  You should not rely on it for legal advice.  Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.  This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.  Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.