The maternal grandparents of an 8-year-old boy tortured and killed allegedly by his mother and her boyfriend have taken the first steps to file a wrongful death lawsuit against several Los Angeles County agencies, including the one tasked with investigating reports of abuse in the household.
The lawsuit seeking unspecified damages claims that child welfare workers illegally removed Gabriel Fernandez from his grandparent’s home, where he lived most of his short life, to his mother’s custody; and failed to fully investigate more than 60 reports of abuse.
The defendants were served Monday with the papers first obtained by NBC4. The governmental agencies have six months to respond before the family's attorney can officially file the case.
"What we would like to see is changes in how the sheriff department deals with these cases, the way schools deal with these cases, and actually any entity," attorney John Noland said.
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 and groin.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested the boy’s mother and her boyfriend on May 23. The 8-year-old died the next day.
Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 29, and Isauro Aguirre, 32, each face one count of capital murder with the special circumstance of torture, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
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Arraignments for Pearl Fernandez and Isauro Aguirre have been delayed three times, as of August 2013. They are scheduled to appear in court again Oct. 7.
Warnings Accompany Custody Shift
When Gabriel was a month old, his mother – the boy’s sole living biological parent – turned over custody to her parents, “stating that she did not want Gabriel and had no love for the child,” the lawsuit reads.
In October 2012, Pearl Fernandez enlisted the help of DCFS to regain custody of her then-7-year-old son.
Despite past allegations of abuse and the objections of Gabriel’s grandparents, the boy was placed in the custody of his mother unnecessarily and without court order, the lawsuit claims.
Seven months later, he was dead.
Some 64 reports of abuse were relayed to DCFS by family members, teachers and neighbors concerning Gabriel.
Eight separate investigations into possible abuse were opened for the family -- which includes two siblings to Gabriel -- starting in 2003, according to court documents.
Pearl Fernandez had another child removed from her home for alleged abuse, according to the lawsuit.
Those investigations, the lawsuit alleges, only involved meetings with Pearl Fernandez, and did not include any private individual interviews with Gabriel or physical exams to assure he wasn’t abused.
The Fernandezes claim that if investigators had spoken with their grandson, they “would have immediately removed” him from his mother’s home.
Social Workers, Agencies Blamed
Los Angeles County and its sheriff’s department, the Palmdale Unified School District, LA County Department of Children and Family Services and its director, and the LA County Department of Public Social Services are defendants in the lawsuit.
Four unnamed social workers -- two of them supervisors -- are also defendants in the lawsuit. And an investigator with the LA County Department of Public Social Services is specifically named.
Tasked with investigating Pearl Fernandez’s allegations that her parents were using their custody of Gabriel for money, Javier Cruz visited the Palmdale home where he learned of the boy’s injuries, including a burn on his foot, the lawsuit reads.
Cruz is accused of not reporting those injuries, and instead, calling Pearl Fernandez the following day and asking her out on a date.
One of Gabriel's teacher told NBC4 she repeatedly called authorities about Gabriel's condition, including BB-gun pellet markings on his face. But attorney Noland said calls to the hotline numbers are not enough.
"In the face of obvious abuse, we believe that there should be more specific training as to what steps could be taken by the staff, the nurse, the principal," he said.
Requests for comment from the Palmdale Unified School District were not returned.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is conducting its own internal review.
The county said it does not comment on pending litigation, but DCFS Director Phillip Browning told NBC4 in June there had been serious lapses in the Fernandez investigation.
Death Inspires Rethink
Four DCFS workers who examined repeated complaints of abuse in the household will be discharged after an investigation into the 8-year-old’s death.
Gabriel’s death sparked days of protest demanding changes in the way child abuse cases are handled.
The lawsuit alleges DCFS, the target of several demonstrations, “deploys a policy of incomplete investigations, arbitrary removal decisions and inadequate reporting due to an overloaded case load.”
Also fingered in the suit is the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
In 2012 alone, there were 882 suspected child abuse cases in the department's Palmdale station, of which more than 100 were prosecuted.
Because of the sheer volume of child abuse cases -- which can double in a single weekend, the station assigned a deputy specifically to child abuse investigations – one of a few with that role in all of LA County.
A Palmdale sheriff’s official told NBC4 that investigators “may have had an opportunity to find something” in Gabriel’s case.
“I know a lot of things that we are not allowed to talk about and there are some procedural issues we want to address," Capt. Don Ford told NBC4 earlier this month.
Ford said he’s requested specialized training by Special Victims Unit detectives for the Palmdale station’s 200 sworn deputies, and lapses in information between agencies is being targeted to prevent another tragedy.
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