Los Angeles

Judge Refuses to Drop Social Worker Charges in Gabriel Fernandez Case

A judge rejected a bid Monday to dismiss charges against two former Los Angeles County social workers and their supervisors, who are charged with child abuse and falsifying records stemming from the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy.

Attorneys for Stefanie Rodriguez, 31, Patricia Clement, 65, Kevin Bom, 37, and Gregory Merritt, 60, filed court papers maintaining that the statute of limitations for the charges arising from the death of Gabriel Fernandez had expired.

Bom's attorney, Hagop Kuyumjian, argued to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar that a three-year statute of limitations applied. Kuyumjian said Bom "had nothing to do with this file (Fernandez case) after Jan. 31, 2013."

The criminal complaint against Bom and his co-defendants was filed March 28, 2016.

He said the prosecution's contention that the statute could be extended one year under a law related to public misconduct did not apply.

"The court would essentially be making new law" if it extended that limit, Kuyumjian said.

Deputy District Attorney Ana Maria Lopez countered that the defendants "were public employees and they were engaged in misconduct.''

Lopez also told the judge the defendants had a legal duty that extended to May 24, 2013, the date of Gabriel's death, so the charges were brought "well within the statute of limitations," even without the extension.

Whether or not that legal duty existed amounted to an issue of fact to be settled during trial, Lopez said.

When Villar refused to dismiss the charges, the four co-defendants pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Gabriel's mother, Pearl Fernandez, 32, and then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 36, are charged with murder in connection with the boy's death.

Prosecutors announced last year they would seek the death penalty against the two, who are awaiting a pretrial hearing July 28 in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.

When he died, the boy had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and burns over his body, prosecutors said.

Gabriel's death sparked a firestorm of criticism of the county Department of Children and Family Services over reports that the boy and his mother were repeatedly visited at their Palmdale home by social workers in response to abuse allegations, but the boy was never removed from the home.

According to the District Attorney's Office, DCFS opened a file on Gabriel's case on Oct. 31, 2012, and maintained one until the boy's death.

Prosecutors allege that Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs of escalating physical abuse and the family's lapsed participation in DCFS efforts to help maintain the family.

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 said.

All four defendants were fired by the county following an internal investigation into the case. Merritt, however, appealed his firing, and the Civil Service Commission ordered that he be reinstated. The matter is now being appealed in court.

If convicted, Merritt and the other three defendants each face up to 10 years in prison.

Philip Browning, director of the DCFS, said in April that he could not comment specifically about the criminal case, but he defended the work done by his agency.

"I want to make it unambiguously clear that the defendants do not represent the daily work, standards or commitment of our dedicated social workers, who, like me, will not tolerate conduct that jeopardizes the well-being of children," Browning said. "For the vast majority of those who choose this demanding career, it is nothing short of a calling."

In a statement released after the charges were filed, District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the social workers and supervisors involved in Gabriel's case had a legal duty to protect the child.

"By minimizing the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered, these social workers allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused," Lacey said. "We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel's well-being. They should be held responsible for their actions."

Darcy Calkins, who represented Clements at an April 9 hearing, told the judge her client was once a nun. Outside court that day, she said she believed her client would be exonerated of the charges.

Filer told reporters outside court after that hearing, "My client's name will be cleared."

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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