Four Los Angeles County social workers have been charged with felony child abuse and falsifying public records in the 2012 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, of Sylmar, California.
The dead boy’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, are currently awaiting trial on charges of capital murder and torture.
Court records indicate more than 60 complaints were lodged with county Department of Children and Family Services about the mother.
County prosecutors allege DCFS employees Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were negligent in allowing “the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered … [and] allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused.”
The four have been charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records.
The boy's mother and her boyfriend have pleaded not guilty to charges of beating the kid to death, shooting him in the chest and groin with a BB gun, knocking out his teeth, forcing him to eat his own vomit, drenching him with pepper spray and locking him in a cabinet in their bedroom with a sock stuffed in his mouth to silence his screams, according to court records.
Amanda Navarez, a family friend of Gabriel’s cousin, said she was shocked when she learned about the extent of the boy’s abuse.
“This was beyond abuse. It was torture,” Navarez told Fox News Latino. “We need a change in the system. DCFS needs to be restructured. I’m just hoping they don’t drop charges to lesser charges. We pay tax dollars for these people [social workers] and the union protects them.”
Fox News Latino attempted to contact Deputy District Attorney, John Hatami, handing the prosecution's case and was told by DA spokesperson Ricardo Santiago, Hatami is not giving interviews at this time.
The fact that the social workers have also been prosecuted with criminal charges makes this case rare and historic for child welfare.
One of the most damning charges is a suicide note that Gabriel wrote, that according to court records, the social workers knew about.
“He was forced to write the suicide note, so that Pearl and Isauro could say it was his fault. They say he did things to himself. The truth is he played with dolls, and they claimed he was gay, and they hated that,” Emily Carranza, Gabriel’s cousin, told FNL.
Shortly before Gabriel’s death, the caseworkers decided to close his case.
At their arraignment last week, the social workers did not enter pleas, pending another hearing later this month. Superior Court Judge Sergio Tapia set bail for each at $100,000.
“Social workers play a vital role in society. We entrust them to protect our children from harm,” Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement. “When their negligence is so great as to become criminal, young lives are put at risk. We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel's well-being.”
If convicted of child abuse and falsifying records, the social workers could face as much as 10 years in prison.
Prior to living with his mother and her boyfriend, Gabriel had lived with his grandparents, starting at a month old.
Gabriel’s grandfather, Robert, told police he lost custody of the boy when his daughter took him to a barbecue and refused to return him. She later returned with sheriff’s deputies, who claimed she had rights to Gabriel because she was his biological mother.
Within eight months living in his mother and boyfriend’s care, Gabriel’s teacher, Jennifer Garcia, reported physical signs of abuse to social workers. It’s been reported that the abuse continued to get more severe.
Calls to Pearl and Aguirre’s attorneys for comment were not answered by press time.
The teacher first reported the abuse when Gabriel said his mother would hit him with a belt buckle until he bled. He asked her if that was normal.
"I called the social worker several times after that incident," Garcia told The Antelope Valley Times, saying she had the caseworker's number on speed dial. "She [Pearl Fernandez, Gabriel’s mother] made him wear girls’ clothes to school once, saying it was to embarrass him.”
Additionally, Gabriel told her that he wanted to go back to living with his grandparents, Garcia told the newspaper.
The boy’s grandfather told the Antelope Valley Times that he heard rumors of Pearl’s neighbors also reporting the abuse.
“Pearl gave Gabriel up as soon as he was born. There was no bonding with him as an infant. I’ve heard rumors that she [Pearl] was abused herself by Robert, who I’ve also heard is gang affiliated,” Navarez told FNL.
She added: "Isauro [the boyfriend] was always a bully, I've heard from friends, even though on the outside he appeared to be very nice.”