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Social Worker Fired Over Heinous Child Abuse Death Wants Job Back

Gabriel Fernandez (Photo via Facebook)
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The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services is headed to court to ensure that a social worker who supervised the case of a young boy who was beaten to death won't get his job back. Gregory Merritt was a social worker who was supervising the case of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who was allegedly tortured and eventually beaten to death in May of 2013 by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. A statewide investigation was launched into three county child welfare agencies, and Merritt and three other employees were fired two months after the boy's death. Merritt was able to appeal his firing to the L.A. County Civil Service Commission in April. All five members voted to reinstate him, giving him a 30-day suspension instead of dismissal, the L.A. Times reports. At the time, the commission's hearing officer, Jeffrey E. Hauptman, said that while Merritt bore some responsibility for poor supervision, it wasn't enough to "justify his discharge after nearly 24 years of unblemished service."

However, County Child Welfare Chief Philip Browning said yesterday that he will go to court to prevent Merritt from going back to work. This is a rare move, as the department generally goes with with whatever the commission decides.

Merritt has not been paid since he was dismissed, and a department spokesperson said he will not be able to return to work because of the County's petition in L.A. County Superior Court. It is unclear whether Merritt will be able to receive paychecks while the issue is being appealed.

Gabriel Fernandez and his two siblings had lived with relatives up until October of 2012, when Pearl Fernandez won custody of her children back from her parents, despite her known history of mental health issues and drug use. The children then lived with her and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.

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Despite numerous warning signs—including over 60 reports from teachers, therapists and relatives who suspected the boy was being abused—Gabriel was not removed from the home. Merritt and social worker Patricia Clement actually closed Gabriel's case shortly before he was killed.

Browning has testified that he doubts that Clement ever actually went to Gabriel's home based on vague notes from a supposed visit, and that Clement missed other scheduled visits. She also had a known history of missing visits and not thoroughly completing reports. Clement even admitted to never having any one-on-one interviews with Gabriel to discuss the allegations of abuse.

One of Merritt's duties would have been to look over Clement's notes. Additionally, while Merritt and Clement had both been made aware of a suicide note Gabriel had written and that he had a pellet from a BB gun lodged in his chest, Gabriel was never sent to get medical or mental health treatment. During all of this, Gabriel's parent were allegedly pepper spraying him, forcing him to eat his own vomit, locking him in a small cabinet, shooting him with a BB gun and beating him. A therapist even reported that Gabriel said that he had been made to perform oral sex on a relative. When paramedics responded to reports that Gabriel wasn't breathing on May 22, 2013, the boy had three broken ribs, a cracked skull, two missing teeth, BB pellets lodged in his lung and groin and numerous bruises and burns. He died in the hospital two days later.

The state of California is currently considering a law that would make child death records a secret. This would contradict the 2008 law that gave reporters access to social worker case notes and files which, in Gabriel's case, revealed how county social workers missed multiple red flags and essentially failed to save a young boy.

Fernandez and Aguirre have both pleaded not guilty to Gabriel's death and are awaiting trial.