Two former social workers and their supervisors, who are accused of failing to protect an 8-year-old Palmdale boy from deadly abuse by his mother and then-boyfriend, pleaded not guilty Monday to child abuse and falsifying records.
Stefanie Rodriguez, 32, Patricia Clement, 66, Kevin Bom, 37, and Gregory Merritt, 61, were fired from their jobs following an internal investigation into the May 24, 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez.
On March 20, all four were ordered to stand trial on one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying records. Each defendant faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
They are set to return to court April 27 for a pretrial hearing.
Pearl Fernandez, 33, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 36, are awaiting trial on a murder charge stemming from her son's death. The District Attorney's Office plans to seek the death penalty against the two.
Following a preliminary hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar found that the social workers and their superiors had a duty to protect the boy and had plenty of reason to suspect that the youngster might be seriously injured or killed.
"Red flags were everywhere, yet no referrals were ever made for a medical exam," Villar said, citing reports of injuries by Gabriel's teacher, who took photos, and a welfare office worker.
"The abuse was clearly escalating. Reckless and criminal negligence is found here," the judge ruled.
Clement's attorney, Shelly Albert, told reporters early this month that the prosecution was "an aberration" and said it amounted to holding the social workers "vicariously liable for acts of the parents."
Gabriel's death prompted a firestorm of criticism of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services over reports that social workers repeatedly visited the family's home in response to allegations of abuse but left the boy in his mother's custody.
James Barnes, one of two attorneys for Merritt, told reporters following the preliminary hearing that Villar's ruling was "totally incorrect legally," contending the legal duty that the social workers had was not to the child, but to control the mother's behavior.
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There was simply not enough evidence for the Department of Children and Family Services to take the child away from his mother, the defense attorney said.
He said the escalating violence cited by the judge occurred months after Merritt had already closed the case file on Gabriel. The only complaint his client was aware of was bruising on the boy's bottom, and parents are allowed by law to use corporal punishment, Barnes said.
"My client and the others are being scapegoated," he said, calling the case an excuse for DCFS' lack of sufficient staffing to handle child abuse cases.
Palmdale elementary school teacher Jennifer Garcia testified that she called Rodriguez multiple times to report that Gabriel said his mother punched him and shot him in the face with a BB gun. Her first call came more than six months before Gabriel was killed.
An autopsy showed the child had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns over his body, according to authorities.
Villar said records were incomplete and inadequate, parties weren't talking to one another, incidents went undocumented and some people who are mandated to report abuse failed to do so.
Defense attorneys argued during the preliminary hearing that others were culpable in the boy's death and were better positioned to have saved the boy.
"Gabriel was certainly not left on an island by himself" when the case was transferred to another DCFS unit, argued Joseph Gutierrez, another attorney for Merritt. He said one therapist failed to report serious injuries because her supervisor told her not to.
The case was transferred to the Family Preservation Unit to "put more eyes" on Gabriel, said Rodriguez's attorney, Lance Filer. "(Rodriguez) was the only one ... to substantiate any of the claims ... she did exactly what she was supposed to do and had been trained to do."
Gabriel was seeing a counselor twice a week and a sheriff's deputy stopped by at one point to check on the boy and found no evidence of abuse, according to the defense.
"This was unanticipated, not foreseeable," Gutierrez argued, adding that it's "contrary to human nature, to human reason" that a mother could kill her child.
"I don't think there's anyone who feels worse than these four social workers," Gutierrez said.
But Deputy District Attorney Ana Maria Lopez accused the defendants of making "a deliberate choice to circumvent the system," taking shortcuts and violating procedures.
Prosecutors allege that Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs of escalating physical abuse and the family's lapsed cooperation with DCFS.
Prosecutors also contend that Bom and Merritt knew or should have known they were approving false reports that conflicted with evidence of Gabriel's deteriorating physical health, allowing the boy to remain in the home until he died.
An investigation revealed that at times over an eight-month period preceding his death, Gabriel -- among other instances of violent abuse -- was doused with pepper spray, forced to eat his own vomit and locked in a closet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams, authorities have said.
"It was their responsibility to protect Gabriel," Lopez said, "to remove this child and put him in a safe place. That's where they failed."
The prosecutor accused the social workers of "professional arrogance" and questioned whether they were "covering up their own misbehavior" in failing to reconsider their earlier decisions when the violence began to escalate.