The head of Los Angeles’ child welfare services admitted Thursday that his social workers made a mistake in the handling of a Palmdale case in which an 8-year-old boy was killed.
"This is something that should have never happened," Phillip Browning told NBC4. "It keeps me up at night."
Browning has been at the helm of Los Angeles County's Department of Child and Family Services for 15 months.
He’s been promoting changes within the department since the beginning of last year, when he called for increased training time for social workers - from 8 weeks to 52.
Now, he said he's had to send four social workers, including supervisors, to desk duty after 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s death. After an internal investigation is completed as early as July, those workers could face serious consequences.
"Reprimands to suspensions to demotions to discharges," Browning said of potential consequences. "And I can assure you that, if the facts indicate – and it appears that they do – that there will be disciplinary action taken."
Gabriel Fernandez was found not breathing May 22 at the Palmdale home he shared with his siblings, mother and her boyfriend. He had suffered a skull fracture, several broken ribs and burns. Investigators said the boy was beaten so badly, he had teeth knocked out.
Sheriff deputies arrested the boy’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, on May 23. The 8-year-old died the next day.
Aguirre and Pearl Fernandez are charged with torture and murder in the boy’s death.
NBC4 obtained documents from the Department of Child and Family Services that show repeated visits by social workers and various safety and risk assessments. In Fernandez's short life, social workers visited him at least eight times. Their visit before his death was for an allegation of sexual abuse. And yet he remained in his mother's care.
"This is a situation where it would've been much better if this child would've been removed from the family and placed in a safe setting," Browning said. "Obviously, something wasn't done correctly."
The enormity of the case appears not to be lost on the head of DCFS.
"This was a tragic situation," he said. "And I think what we're trying to do is ensure that it never happens again."
There's been tremendous community support for the family and outcry against DCFS. The agency says it tries to keep children united with their families but often needs foster families to help when that isn't a possibility.
Some 35,000 kids are under the care of the county and the agency says it needs more foster families to keep kids in safe, reliable homes.
For information on becoming a foster parent, you can call 1-888-811-1121 or visit www.ladcfs.org.
A hotline is also available for any possible cases of child abuse at 1-800-540-4000.