LOS ANGELES – Relatives of an 8-year-old boy whose death led to child abuse charges against four Los Angeles County social workers are expressing little sympathy for those who had been assigned to protect him.
“You brought this upon yourself,” said Emily Carranza, cousin of the boy Gabriel Fernandez, whose image was on her T-shirt at a news conference Thursday. “Your conviction will be our greatest victory.”
Carranza and other family and friends of the boy had hoped for such charges, along with the murder charges already filed against the boy’s mother and her boyfriend.
The four social workers, who prosecutors said were so negligent they contributed to his abuse, were also charged with falsifying records.
The Department of Children and Family Services said Thursday all four, including two supervisors, were fired last year after an internal investigation into the 2013 death.
“In our rigorous reconstruction of the events surrounding Gabriel’s death, we found that four of our social workers had failed to perform their jobs. I directed that all of them be discharged,” the department’s director, Philip Browning, said in a statement.
One of the four successfully appealed his termination to the county’s Civil Service Commission and has been reinstated, prompting Children’s Services to appeal that ruling in court.
Prosecuting welfare workers for physical abuse caused by another is rare but not unprecedented. In New York in 2011, a child welfare worker and his supervisor were charged with negligent homicide in the death of a 4-year-old girl. They eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges.
District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison said this is the first such case to be prosecuted in Los Angeles County, and prosecutors believe it may be the first in the state.
An arrest warrant filed March 28 identifies the four Los Angeles social workers as Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, Patricia Clement, 65, Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60. Merritt, who was one of the supervisors, successfully challenged his termination and is now working for the county in another capacity.
Bail for each was set at $100,000 in a court appearance Thursday.
Their lawyers argued they should be released without bail, saying all had longtime ties to the area, arrived in court as ordered and had done much good for their communities.
“My client’s name will be cleared,” Rodriguez’s attorney, Lance Filer, said outside court.
Clement, who was seen sobbing before the arraignment, is a former nun who worked most of her career as a public servant, according to her lawyer, Darcy Calkins. She also said she expects Clement will be exonerated.
Clement has a graduate degree in marriage and family counseling and served as a chaplain at juvenile hall, Calkins said.
Bom is a licensed therapist and elder in his church, and Merritt teaches college courses, according to their lawyers.
If convicted of child abuse and falsifying records, they could face as much as 10 years in prison.
Gabriel died May 24, 2013, of injuries that included a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns across his body. Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, have pleaded not guilty to murder and are in jail awaiting trial. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
The Department of Children and Family Services opened a case file on him on Oct. 31, 2012, more than six months before he died. In bringing charges, District Attorney Jackie Lacey said it was the social workers’ responsibility to protect him.
Instead, prosecutors say, Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs that Gabriel was suffering from escalating physical abuse and that his family had stopped participating in efforts to keep the family together. They say Bom and Merritt, as supervisors, knew or should have known those reports were false.
“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,” Lacey said.
Associated Press reporter Brian Melley contributed to this story.