Teacher Gives Testimony Saying She'd Contacted Social Workers Numerous Times In Fatal Child Abuse Case
In 2013, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez died after L.A. County Fire Department personnel found him unresponsive at his Palmdale home. Reports say that he'd exhibited signs of abuse, including burn marks and a fractured skull. Gabriel's mother Pearl Fernandez, 29 at the time, and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, then 32, were arrested and later charged with murder. The County District Attorney's office intends to seek the death penalty for both Fernandez and Aguirre, according to City News Service.
Four social workers at Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) were charged with child abuse and falsifying reports. On Wednesday, one of Gabriel's teachers testified in that case, painting a harrowing picture of the injuries that Gabriel had suffered, and what she felt was a lack of action from the welfare agency. "As time went on and new injuries kept appearing, I started to feel like nothing was happening [with the case]," said teacher Jennifer Garcia, who taught Gabriel starting in 2012.
Garcia testified that Gabriel had come to school exhibiting injuries, as well as behavior that may have suggested turmoil at home. At one point, said Garcia, Gabriel showed up to class with a swollen face that was covered in bruises, according to CBS 2. When Garcia asked Gabriel what had happened, the boy said that his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun. Garcia also said that, in a separate incident, Gabriel had told her that he'd been beaten with a belt, which resulted in him bleeding.
Garcia also claimed that Gabriel had behavioral issues, describing him as "angry" and saying that he often kicked other kids under the table. She also noticed that he'd once compared an image to a bong, and had “pretended to snort something off of his desk” in another incident—actions that Garcia believes suggested drug use at Gabriel's home.
Garcia said that she'd reached out to DCFS, and was told by Stefanie Rodriguez, a social worker, that there'd be an investigation. This call was made on October 30, 2012. In November 2012, Gabriel once again showed up to class exhibiting signs of abuse, which prompted Garcia to reach out to Rodriguez once more. But the attempts felt futile to Garcia. According to CBS 2, Garcia's voicemails to Rodriguez would go unanswered, and the teacher believed that Gabriel's abuse intensified after each visit from a social worker. In 2013, Gabriel's older brother Ezequiel (Gabriel had two siblings), testified that Gabriel had been locked in a cabinet at times, and had been gagged with a sock and bandana on occasion.
Records show that Gabriel had penned a suicide note once. The L.A. Times also reported that one of the allegations in Gabriel's file was never resolved, and had sat there beyond the two month limit that's stipulated by law.
"The red flags were all over the place. They were ignored. It is just inexplicable to me," Zev Yaroslavsky, former county Supervisor, told the Times.
DCFS would close Gabriel's case, and three weeks later the boy was dead.
Rodriguez, as well as four other social workers—Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom, and Gregory Merritt—are being charged with child abuse and falsifying records. Prosecutors claim that Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that would have documented signs of physical abuse, as well as the family's dealings with DCFS. Prosecutors also allege that Bom and Merritt either knew they were approving falsified reports, or had done so due to gross negligence.
If convicted, each of the defendants faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
LAist called DCFS for a statement, but no one was immediately available for comment.