Los Angeles

Social Workers Undergo New Training Since Gabriel Fernandez Death

The training comes after the 8-year-old boy was found barely breathing in May 2013 inside his mother's Palmdale home

A centralized location to train new social workers in Los Angeles County officially opened its doors on Thursday. It's a child welfare system that came under intense scrutiny after the death of Gabriel Fernandez.

Gabriel, 8, was allegedly tortured and abused by his mother and her boyfriend for months while under the guidance of the county child welfare system. They pleaded not guilty to murder charges. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Four social workers were fired in connection with his case. Fired were two social workers, two supervisors -- one who the civil commission has made a decision to reinstate, Gregory Merritt.

Andrea Romero, a social worker in training, walked NBC4 through a simulation of a house visit while investigating a case of child neglect or abuse. These real-life scenarios are among the changes to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services training following Gabriel's death in 2013.

"We always ask to look in the fridge or in the cupboards to make sure there is enough food in the home," Romero says.

At the newly-opened DCFS University, the techniques also include going out in the field with veteran social workers.

Edmarine Edwards, a DCFS University trainer, says the training ensures nothing is missed.

"If the worker suspects or believes that this child may be physically abused or severely neglected they are to do a visual inspection of that child and that's covered in-depth," Edwards said.

This is a big change from previous years, said David Green, a treasurer with SEIU Local 721. Green has been a social worker for 15 years and is an officer with the union representing social workers.

"I can remember the days when it was eight weeks of PowerPoint presentation and then you get out in the field and you feel like you are starting from square one," he says.

Green says it's a great step but it doesn't stop there.

"Our emphasis is on brand-new workers but also of continuing training especially on health and safety issues," he says.

DCFS Director Philip Browning says creating simulation training for current workers is on the drawing board but hiring new workers to bring down caseloads is happening. The LA County Board of Supervisors approved 500 new positions two months ago, Browning says. That would add to 1,000 workers hired over the last two years.

"This is not an easy field so it's more of the we need to come in here knowing that we need to learn," says Perla Casapa, a social worker in training.

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