While the adults accused of fatally abusing Gabriel Fernandez await trial, officials are working to fix the safety net that failed him. The LA County Sheriff's Department's Palmdale station is a part of an internal investigation into the boy’s torture, and say miscommunication and a lack of resources played a significant role. Lolita Lopez reports from Palmdale for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2013.
Deputy Vanessa Reddy is the deputy specifically assigned to child abuse investigations for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Palmdale station, and is one of a few with that role in all of the county.
"I call social workers, I find out backgrounds, see if anyone has any warrants or anything, you know just find out anything I can about the home and people that live there," said Reddy, the SCARS, or suspected child abuse report, deputy.
The Palmdale station created the position because of the sheer volume of child abuse investigations in its 770 square miles. In just one weekend, cases can multiply.
"I went home on Friday and I had four. I came back on Tuesday and I had 19," Reddy said.
In 2012 alone, there were 882 suspected child abuse cases in the Palmdale station of which more than 100 were prosecuted. The commitment to these investigations was made two years prior to the death of 8-year old Gabriel Fernandez in May.
"We had four contacts with him," Captain Don Ford said, referring to the boy whose death inspired days of protest demanding changes in the way child abuse cases are handled.
The station is now part of an internal investigation into the little boy's torture and abuse that now has his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, facing capital murder charges. The pair appeared in court Tuesday, but their arraignment was delayed for a third time.
Gabriel Fernandez was found barely breathing May 22 at the Palmdale apartment he shared with his siblings, mother and her boyfriend. He had suffered a fractured skull, three broken ribs and burns to his skin. Two of his teeth were knocked out, and paramedics found BB pellets embedded in his lung.
Four DCFS workers will be discharged after an investigation into the 8-year-old's death.
"I feel we may have had an opportunity to find something. I know a lot of things that we are not allowed to talk about and there are some procedural issues we want to address," Ford said.
Aside from looking into procedures, Ford has ordered specialized training by Special Victims Unit detectives for all of the station's 200 sworn deputies.
Also a concern: lapses in information gathering from agency to agency, including the LA County Department of Children and Family Services. In Gabriel's case, the responding deputies did not have access to the majority of reports created by DCFS.
"We’re trying to look at some ways where we can improve communications with the DCFS so we make sure we have some of the information they have. There are legal restrictions on that that may require some legislation," Ford said.
In the meantime, they are making more immediate changes.
"We are tracking previous child abuse reports and one of the ways its linked in our computer system is through the address. We want to find a way to improve that, to link them not just by address so if families move, that information will move with them," Ford said.
Ford suggests people report alleged abuse to the county's hotline number, 800-540-4000. It is the one way DCFS and law enforcement can begin parallel investigations.
Reddy says if a teacher, neighbor, or any person believes a child is in imminent danger, they need to act immediately.
"If they feel that a child is in danger and they are going to send them back to the home or where they came from, you know, it’s a shame. They should call the sheriff station or 911," Reddy said.
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