Social workers charged in Palmdale torture death of 8-year-old

- Two former Los Angeles County social workers and their supervisors made their first court appearance Thursday on charges of child abuse and falsifying records stemming from the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who prosecutors allege was tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend.

Social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, and Patricia Clement, 65, and supervisors Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60, were each charged March 28 with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records, according to the District Attorney's Office.

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.''

All four were expected to post bond late this afternoon. They are due back in court April 21 for arraignment.

The charges stem from the May 24, 2013, death of Gabriel Fernandez.

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, 32, and then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 35, are each charged with murder in connection with Gabriel's death. Prosecutors announced last year that they would seek the death penalty against
the two, who are awaiting a pretrial hearing May 24.

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 at their Palmdale home by social workers in response to abuse allegations, but the boy was never removed from the home.

According to the District Attorney's Office, DCFS opened a file on Gabriel's case on Oct. 31, 2012, and maintained one until the boy's death. Prosecutors allege that Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs of escalating physical abuse and the family's failure to take part in DCFS efforts to help maintain the family.

Prosecutors also contend that Bom and Merritt knew or should have known they were approving false reports that conflicted with evidence of Gabriel's deteriorating physical health, allowing the boy to remain in the home until he died.

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, authorities said.

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.

Merritt and the other three criminal defendants each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

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.''

District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the social workers and supervisors involved in Gabriel's case had a legal duty to protect the child.

"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. "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.''"

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.''

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