LOS ANGELES – Gabriel Fernandez was only 8-years-old when he was tortured and eventually killed at the hands of his own mother and her boyfriend in 2013.
Fox News spoke with series executive producer, Brian Knappenberger, and producer Garrett Therolf, who also broke the story of Gabriel’s death while working as a reporter with the Los Angeles Times. Together, the pair focus on Gabriel's death, the trials of Fernandez’s mother Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, as well as the government systems that failed to protect Gabriel.
“Nobody listened to Gabriel when he was alive,” Knappenberger said of the heartbreaking case. “You know, this was a 7-year-old boy when he experienced a lot of the abuse, 8-years-old when he died in the middle of Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles. And nobody heard him. Nobody heard his voice.”
“That trial was so intense and so emotional and still completely mind-blowing and watching people come and testify that, at first, that's what we wanted to cover,” the award-winning director said of the sinister and grim details in which the two convicted persons forced the young boy to eat used cat litter when he allegedly didn’t clean up after their pets, the trial exposed.
“We wanted to understand how this happened but it went far beyond that,” he continued. “I mean, it really did. It seemed like everybody there was testifying, gave some small piece of the story. But the answers and the questions just kept getting deeper and deeper and deeper. And of course, we go into the trial of the social workers or the case against the social workers as well, in this case and look at a whole array of other agencies and entities that played a role in this or could have saved Gabriel.”
Therolf told Fox News he had been covering the Los Angeles County government beat which included many of the various local agencies such as child protective services, public hospitals as well as beaches, harbors and parks. “And I was covering the board of supervisors and all the agencies that they supervised at the time.”
The former Times reporter explained a new law that went into effect in California that allowed reporters and certain members of the media access to a set of information about every child in the county who died of maltreatment.
Therolf immediately took advantage of the law which pulled back the curtain not only on the number of deaths but also the signatures surrounding the occurrences.
“For those who are able to see the series, you'll see that his siblings were not targeted in the same way. He was scapegoated for all of the family's frustrations and disappointments,” Therolf explained, adding that it’s common for young children to become targets of maltreatment.
“He fit the profile, in a sense, because he had been removed from the parents for the longest period of time and when he was reunified with his mother, he expressed a desire to go back where he was before,” Therolf continued. “And so, when you see that long separation and also when the parent feels rejection, that can sometimes put a target on a child's back.”
Unfortunately, for Gabriel, the target was massive.
In addition to being called gay by his mother’s boyfriend, Gabriel was beaten because Aguirre had a belief in his mind, that the young boy was homosexual and even made Gabriel don women’s clothing. Gabriel had no chance of ever exiting the predicament he found himself living in because his mother, Pearl, pleaded to Child Protective Services to return him to her after Gabriel lived with his uncle and his partner and then was handed over to his grandparents.
“I think by most accounts, Gabriel had had a happy early life,” Therolf said of Gabriel's life before he was placed with his mother. “According to some of the people who were there, they said that she did it to reclaim the welfare money and the grandparents called the police out. They said, 'We don't think that this is the right thing to do.' But there was no formal custody agreement and he went back to his mother and things deteriorated pretty quickly from there.”
When first-responders found Gabriel’s body, he had BBs from an airsoft gun lodged into his skin as well as a cracked skull. Gabriel had been tormented, pepper-sprayed and made to sleep bound-and-gagged inside of a cramped cupboard.
Numerous parties made attempts to highlight what was going on in the home, however, pleas by his teachers and security guards fell on deaf ears.
Therolf said of the four social workers tasked with working Gabriel’s case, none of them removed him or made him visit a doctor. In 2016, they were hit with charges for child abuse and falsification of records.
“But even among those four, they had very, very different roles,” Therolf said. “For one, you had Pat [Patricia] Clement, who had been at the agency for years – by many accounts had become burned out and was trying to plot her escape through different business ventures that she was putting in place. And when you look at her notes – I mean, they're incredibly, incredibly thin. And for some visits, you don't see anything at all.
“On the other hand, you also have Kevin Bom, who was one of the supervisors on the case.
“He was a rising star within the department. He had just graduated from USC School of Social Work, which is one of the most prestigious programs in the country for the field. Everybody in the office viewed him as someone who might maybe even lead the agency one day. Yet again, when you look at his file, they're documenting injuries but at no point did they require Gabriel to see a doctor. And so each one of them, I think, has different levels of culpability.”
In January, four years after the social workers were charged by LA County prosecutors, the 2nd District Court of Appeal justices threw out the 2016 criminal charges filed against former county Department of Children and Family Services employees Kevin Bom, Gregory Merritt, Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement in a 2-1 ruling.
“Although there may be consequences to social workers who fail to fulfill” their duties, the appellate opinion reads, “the consequences do not include criminal liability for child abuse.”
Despite the ruling, both Therolf and Knappenberger feel Gabriel’s case and trial served as a study into not only the secrecy within government entities but the astronomical number of children many social workers are dumped with monitoring.
“We call upon this agency to do a pretty incredible thing,” said Therolf. “When a family is falling apart, how does a government put that back together? The numbers that this agency deals with is just extraordinary. Here in Los Angeles County and also all over the country, you'll find that one out of seven children are reported to the child abuse hotline by the time they're 5-years-old. For black children, it's one out of three. The volume that this agency is contending with would overwhelm almost anybody.”
“And I think that question of culpability, it drives through the heart of the series,” Knappenberger added. “Because you do want answers when you see what happened to Gabriel Fernandez – everybody does. And every time you're in the trial and in the courtroom and someone comes on and you hear their piece of the story, you think you're getting a little piece of the puzzle.”
The producing pair said they had extreme difficulty getting answers from the government while working in tandem on the project, which aided in the surprising twists they experienced.
“Stories in the child welfare area come out really from one point of view because there's so many secrecy laws that are put in there with the best intentions,” Therolf explained. “Children do have a right to privacy but when a child dies, those very same laws often are enlisted to shield the government workers who may have let that child down in some way. So I think what we have here in this particular documentary is actually something pretty rare, which is a very detailed, granular look at what happened in this child's life and what went wrong.”
“It did keep taking different turns every time you learn something, every time you did a new interview, you'd learn something new – that was surprising,” Knappenberg said. “One of the things that surprised me and probably didn't surprise Garrett because he's been on the beat in Los Angeles County – on this beat longer than I have, is the straight-up secrecy of DCFS and the Board of Supervisors.”
He continued: “It is very difficult to get answers about these sorts of cases from these agencies. And that secrecy, I think the public should know what's happening here. This is an enormous agency that oversees a huge budget. And there really should be greater transparency here.”
“I was surprised we didn't [get that]. I expected a little bit, but I was surprised we didn't get more cooperation from them.”
“So it was a big responsibility and privilege for us to tell this story. And I think that his story, even though it's a small story of a single boy, really represented some big problems in Los Angeles County. And in some ways, Los Angeles County is a case study for everywhere else, too.”
In a statement to Fox News on Tuesday, LA County DCFS said that “what happened to Gabriel was horrific and inhumane; no child should ever suffer such abuse and neglect at the hands of a caregiver,” and added that it has undertaken several reforms.
"It should never take the death of a child to address weaknesses and make investments in improvements for child protection; it is in his memory and in pursuit of the safety of Los Angeles County’s two million children that we have reformed how child protection work is done,” the statement continued. “This new era of reform began immediately following Gabriel’s death and continues on today with Director Bobby D. Cagle who joined the Department in December 2018.”
“DCFS has, and continues to, implement many reforms to increase child safety and enhance our work with supporting at-risk families and those in crisis," the note maintained. "We were in contact with the producers and director of the documentary about Gabriel’s death beginning in 2018 and through 2019. In that time, we had several phone conversations where we answered questions; exchanged emails providing information; provided access to film a ride-along with a social worker in Palmdale; provided access to film a ride-along with an Emergency Response Command Post social worker; secured an interview with Division Chief Ed Fithyan, and a tour of the Child Protection Hotline that was filmed."
“It is important for the public not only to understand the circumstances that led up to Gabriel’s death, as shown in heartbreaking detail in the Netflix documentary series, but also the reforms that have been enacted since."
The agency provided Fox News numerous bullet points highlighting the reforms that have since been enacted which include the hiring of 3,573 new social workers since 2013 in an expansion that lowered many caseloads for workers and allowed a 5:1 ratio of supervisors to social workers, among various other reforms.
A rep for the producers told Fox News that DCFS "declined an interview or to answer questions about Gabriel’s case on camera."
“The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” is currently streaming on Netflix.