Author:Melissa Etehad and Richard Winton
Los Angeles County judge ruled Monday that four social workers should stand trial on child abuse and other charges in the death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy they were assigned to protect, allowing prosecutors to push ahead with a case that has sent a chill through the ranks of child protection workers nationwide.

Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar said that “red flags were everywhere” during the months before Gabriel Fernandez died and that the social workers mishandled evidence of escalating abuse and failed to file timely reports on what was happening in the boy’s home before he was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend in 2013. The judge said the workers’ conduct amounted to criminal negligence.

“[Gabriel’s mom] was in the system — that was a red flag, he missed school…had injuries, and his teacher called,” Villar said. “All of this shows that the mother was uncooperative and the parties should have known at that time something was wrong.”

Some defendants broke down in tears after Villar announced that the case would move forward. One of them, Patricia Clement, placed her head in her hands in disbelief.

The standard of proof to hold a defendant to answer at a preliminary hearing is far less than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt threshold required to convict someone at a trial. Still, Monday’s decision by Villar will raise alarm among child social workers, many of whom are already dealing with increased public scrutiny and high case volumes, experts said.

“It could have a real chilling effect on the desire to become a child social worker,” said Rebecca Gonzales, director of government relations for the National Assn. of Social Workers’ California chapter. “It is a devastating case for social workers all over the nation and especially in L.A. County.”

Similar cases brought by prosecutors elsewhere have usually resulted in convictions of less serious charges or been thrown out of court.

In January, a judge dismissed felony charges against two Michigan social workers accused of involuntary manslaughter after the killing of a 3-year-old boy they had been supervising. In 2013, prosecutors allowed a New York social worker and his supervisor who had been charged with criminally negligent homicide to plead guilty to misdemeanors in connection with the death of a 4-year-old girl who had allegedly been beaten and starved to death by her mother.

Monday’s ruling in Los Angeles came after a preliminary hearing in which Gabriel’s first-grade teacher and other witnesses testified about their mounting concern over signs of physical abuse — facial bruises, scabs, missing tufts of hair, busted lips — and alarm that their calls to the caseworkers went unheeded.

Summerwind Elementary School teacher Jennifer Garcia said in the months before Gabriel’s death, she repeatedly reported to county child service workers new signs of abuse that prosecutors say came at the hands of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.

A few weeks into the 2012-13 school year, Garcia saw a facial bruise the size of a half-dollar on the boy and he revealed he was beaten with a belt buckle, drawing blood, she said. She immediately called a county child abuse hotline and received a call back from social worker Rodriguez, she testified.

In January 2013, Garcia said, Gabriel came to school with swollen eyes and a pockmarked face. At first, he said he had fallen, but he then told her, “My mom shot me in the face with a BB gun,” she testified.

On two occasions, she testified, a fearful Gabriel asked, “Can you call that lady?” — referring to the county social worker he knew she had been calling. Garcia said she began to lose confidence in child protective services as months passed and Gabriel remained with his mother.

“I kind of started to feel nothing was happening,” she testified.

At some point, Clement took over the case from Rodriguez.

In May 2013, paramedics arrived at the boy’s Palmdale home to find Gabriel not breathing. His skull was cracked, three ribs were broken and his skin was bruised and burned. He had BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. Two teeth had been knocked out.

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