Arraignment postponed for social workers in death of 8-year-old Palmdale boy

Two former social workers and their supervisors were in court Thursday, but did not enter pleas to charges of child abuse and falsifying records involving the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy whose mother and her boyfriend are accused of torturing and murdering him.

Arraignment was rescheduled to June 2 for Los Angeles County social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 31, and Patricia Clement, 65, and supervisors Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60, who were all charged March 28 with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records.

The four were released on bond earlier this month after their initial court appearance April 9 in connection with the charges, which stem from the May 24, 2013, death of Gabriel Fernandez. When he died, the boy had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and had burns over his body, prosecutors said.

The boy's mother, Pearl Fernandez, 32, and then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 35, are charged with murder. 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 Los Angeles 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 he 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 his death. Prosecutors allege that Rodriguez and Clement falsified report 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 earlier this month that 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.''

In a statement released after the charges were filed, 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.''

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