A preliminary hearing is being held this week for Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt, two former Los Angeles County social workers and their supervisors who are charged with child abuse and falsifying records stemming from the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.
Gabriel died on May 24, 2013. Prosecutors said he had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns over his body.
The social workers each face ten years in prison if convicted.
Sylmar resident Emily Carranza, a cousin of the deceased child, was upset by the testimony from the child’s elementary school teacher that confirmed the teacher had called county social workers multiple times to report the severe injuries that her young student had. But the immediate help that was needed never arrived.
Teacher Jennifer Garcia, testifying in the hearing, said she made her first call to a child welfare hotline to report Gabriel’s injuries more than six months before he was killed.
Gabriel was anxious about his homework and afraid to go home at times, Garcia said. The first sign of abuse was when he told Garcia that his mother hit him with the buckle end of a belt and made him bleed, asking his teacher if that was “normal,” she testified.
She said she called the proper hotline on Oct. 30, 2012, and got a call back the next day from social worker Rodriguez, who told Garcia that she was assigned to the case and “would go out and investigate.”
In November 2012, Gabriel showed up with bloody scabs on his head and chunks of his hair cut off and told the teacher “his mom hit him … punched him in the face,” Garcia said, prompting her to call Rodriguez again.
“As time went on and new injuries kept appearing, I started to feel like nothing was happening,” Garcia testified.
Garcia taught first grade at Summerwind Elementary School for five years. Gabriel was a new student in her 2012 class. She said there were times when he was angry and would even kick other kids under the desk, and she at first sent notes home about his behavior.
Lawyers for the social workers at various times objected to the teacher’s testimony and were able to get some of her testimony thrown out of evidence.
For Carranza, testimony about the child’s school behavior was particularly upsetting.
“It sounds like the lawyers for the social workers were actually trying to blame little Gabriel for the social workers not doing their job, and trying to justify the cruel abuse that was inflicted on him,” Carranza said.
She said she believed the teacher sincerely tried to help, but her hands were tied.
“His teacher reported what was obvious abuse,” Carranza said. “She did what she was allowed by the school. Being a mandated reporter for kids is not easy. But knowing what Gabriel was going through, I believe she did everything in her power to do.”
Garcia said she suspected drug use in the boy’s home, based on his comparison of some image in class to a bong and a time when he “pretended to snort something off of his desk.”
When the boy came to school in January 2013 with bruises all over his face, he first said he’d fallen down but ultimately confessed that “my mom shot me in the face with a BB gun” while making him do exercises, Garcia said.
The teacher testified that when she met with the child’s mother (Pearl Fernandez) and her boyfriend (Isauro Aguirre) that “they seemed mean,” and after awhile she stopped sending notes home because she was concerned that they would “retaliate against him” as she continued to see injuries.
Carranza told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol Newspaper that if the abuse was properly investigated, Gabriel should have never been in his mother’s custody.
“What was supposed to be a visit with his mother turned into a permanent situation that was not expected,” Carranza said. “He was living with his grandparents and they expected her to return him to their care, but she refused to bring him back.”
“Gabriel was out of his element, his comfort zone and what used to be familiar to him. He went to live with a mother he hardly knew and who didn’t love him, and a man he never knew and didn’t bond with him, so of course he may have acted out.”
Carranza said it pains her to know that Gabriel tried to do what he could to get help for himself by being honest with his teacher, telling her that his mother was the one who inflicted the cuts, black eyes and bruises that he regularly came to school with.
“Maybe in his little mind he thought if he was bad she (Pearl Fernandez) would send him home to his grandparents. But that didn’t happen. So when notes were sent home the abuse became noticeable, and eight months of torment began the moment he went to live in that nightmare of a home.”
Carranza said the child would have been 12-years-old this month.
“It’s been four years now and we are still awaiting justice.”
Pearl Fernandez, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, are awaiting trial on a capital murder charge in connection with the boy’s death.