Two former social workers and their supervisors were in court Thursday, but did not enter pleas to charges of child abuse and falsifying records involving the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy whose mother and her boyfriend are accused of torturing and murdering him.
Arraignment was rescheduled to June 2 for Los Angeles County social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 31, and Patricia Clement, 65, and supervisors Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60, who were all charged March 28 with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records.
The four were released on bond earlier this month after their initial court appearance April 9 in connection with the charges, which stem from the May 24, 2013, death of Gabriel Fernandez. When he died, the boy had a fractured skull, several broken ribs and had burns over his body, prosecutors said.
The boy's mother, Pearl Fernandez, 32, and then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 35, are charged with murder. Prosecutors announced last year that they would seek the death penalty against the two, who are awaiting a pretrial hearing May 24.
The case sparked a firestorm of criticism of the Los Angeles 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 he was never removed from the home.
Employees at the Antelope Valley Department of Children and Family Services office where the accused used to work rallied in solidarity on Thursday with the accused.
"I retired from there," said Darlene Starr, a former social worker. "I know the system and the system is very flawed."
Some argue social workers' large case loads and other problems demonstrate the bigger issues at the Department of Children and Family Services or with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department whose deputies visited Gabriel's home.
"I am not saying there weren't some errors made but the errors were made for what they knew," Starr said.
Prosecutors said dozens of complaints and welfare investigations and Gabriel was left with his mother and her then live-in boyfriend.
"Nobody saw red flags?" said Paola Pedraza, of Gabriel's Justice, a community group. "It's incredible."
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Since Gabriel's death, the DCFS hired about 1,500 new social workers and revamped the training academy on dealing with abuse referrals.
"What happened to Gabriel is it horrific and we don't want it to keep happening to other children," said Pedraza.
Repercussions from this case are ongoing. One of the social workers accused, Kevin Bom, was most recently working for the San Bernadino Superior Court as a child custody counselor.
Since the criminal charges, family law attorneys such as Sherry Thompson are getting letters about their cases involving Bom.
"A report was done by Mr. Bom and the family court services sent us notification that we had to re-refer," she said, adding that it can be a struggle when dealing with children and families.
Court officials in San Bernardino said they are conducting an administrative investigation into Bom's employment.
The four accused will be back in court in June.