LOS ANGELES (AP) — Prosecutors charged four Los Angeles County social workers with child abuse, saying they were so negligent in handling the case of an 8-year-old boy who died of gruesome, multiple injuries that just like his abusers they were criminally responsible.
The four, who include two supervisors, were also charged with falsifying public records.
The Department of Children and Family Services said Thursday that all four were fired last year after an internal investigation into the 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale.
“In our rigorous reconstruction of the events surrounding Gabriel’s death, we found that four of our social workers had failed to perform their jobs. I directed that all of them be discharged,” the department’s director, Philip Browning, said in a statement.
One of the four successfully appealed his termination to the county’s Civil Service Commission and has been reinstated, prompting Children’s Services to appeal that ruling in court.
Prosecuting welfare workers for physical abuse caused by another is rare but not unprecedented. In New York in 2011 a child welfare worker and her supervisor were charged with negligent homicide in the death of a 4-year-old girl. They eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges.
An arrest warrant filed March 28 identifies the four Los Angeles social workers as Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, Patricia Clement, 65, Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60. Merritt, one of the supervisors, successfully challenged his termination.
All four were scheduled to be arraigned in the criminal case Thursday, and it wasn’t immediately known if they had obtained attorneys. Prosecutors were seeking bail of $155,000 apiece.
Gabriel died May 24, 2013, of injuries that included a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns across his body.
His mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, have pleaded not guilty to murder and are in jail awaiting trial. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
If convicted of child abuse and falsifying records, the social workers could face as much as 10 years in prison.
“Social workers play a vital role in society. We entrust them to protect our children from harm,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said Thursday in announcing the charges. “When their negligence is so great as to become criminal, young lives are put at risk.”
The Department of Children and Family Services had opened a case file on Gabriel on Oct. 31, 2012, more than six months before he died, and Lacey said it was the social workers’ responsibility to protect him.
Prosecutors say Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs that Gabriel was suffering from escalating physical abuse and that his family had stopped participating in efforts to keep the family together. They say Bom and Merritt, as supervisors, knew or should have known those reports were false.
“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.
In the New York case, Administration for Children’s Services caseworker Damon Adams and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, were charged with criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a child in the death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce, who was repeatedly beaten and tied to a bed before her death in 2010.
Adams pleaded guilty in 2013 to misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records, official misconduct and endangering the welfare of a child. Bell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child.
Associated Press Writer Brian Melley contributed to this story.
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