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L.A. County's handling of problem employees varies wildly

It took just two months to dismiss four social workers involved in the case of a boy who was beaten to death, but it took almost three years to even charge a deputy with rape.

August 02, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • Gabriel Fernandez, 8, died in May. Paramedics found him with a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns. His death came after the county's Department of Children and Family Services received and discounted a long series of complaints of abuse. Gabriel's mother and her boyfriend are charged in the case.
Gabriel Fernandez, 8, died in May. Paramedics found him with a fractured…

I've been out of town this week, and watching from afar the machinations of our county government surprised and mystified me.

It took just two months to decide to fire four social workers involved in the case of an 8-year-old boy who was beaten to death in May, allegedly by his mother and her boyfriend.

But it took almost three years to decide to charge a sheriff's deputy with raping a woman he'd threatened to arrest in 2010.

Both cases happened in Palmdale in the Antelope Valley, which suggests that the outskirts of Los Angeles County need a little more scrutiny and a lot more TLC.

The delay in the deputy's case seems unfathomable to me.

Deputy Jose Rigoberto Sanchez stopped a woman while on overnight duty in September 2010, and allegedly offered not to arrest her on an outstanding warrant if she had sex with him. She said he ordered her into the back seat of his patrol car, then drove to a desolate spot in the desert where he raped and sodomized her.

She called the Sheriff's Department to complain the next day. The department took away his badge and his gun and suspended Sanchez — with pay — while it investigated the case.

In January 2011, the department sent its findings to the district attorney's Justice System Integrity Division, which investigates criminal allegations of official misconduct.

And there the case sat for the next 30 months — until Sanchez, 28, was charged this week with 11 felony counts, including rape, sodomy and kidnapping, involving two female motorists.

I know investigations can be complicated endeavors, but if the Sheriff's Department could finish its inquiry in four months, what could possibly take the D.A. 2 1/2 years to decide whether to prosecute?

They won't answer that question, of course. Public disclosure might jeopardize the case, spokesman Jane Robison said. "We conducted an extensive investigation, and filed it when we believed we had evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction."

In the meantime Sanchez was chilling at home, cooling his heels on the taxpayers' dime.

And the woman who reported him was living in fear, puzzled and wounded by authorities' silence.

::

When the deputy, a seven-year veteran of the force, was arrested and jailed this week, his paychecks finally stopped. That's a couple of years and a couple of hundred thousand dollars too late by my account.

The D.A.'s own protocol for handling reports of criminal misconduct by cops requires "review ... in a timely manner" and directs prosecutors to "inform the law enforcement agency within 60 days regarding any filing decision."

In this case, the victim wasn't even interviewed by prosecutors until August 2011, almost one year after she'd reported being attacked and raped.

The woman is now suing the county. A declaration in that civil case, filed by the D.A. in January, offered this explanation for the interminable wait:

"Due to the changes in the management of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, the decision to file criminal charges as to Deputy Jose Sanchez has been delayed."

No one but the victim seems bothered by the delay. "In terms of the length of the investigation, I'm not going to cast aspersions on any entity," sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. "Investigations regrettably take what they take."

But the woman's lawyer, John C. Taylor, said she has spent the last few years looking over her shoulder. "She's scared. She's made this very serious complaint and the deputy knows where she lives." Still, she's grateful that the county finally decided to prosecute, he said.

The case against Sanchez now includes a second victim, a woman whom the deputy allegedly pulled over two nights later and tried to bribe — sex in exchange for not being arrested — in front of a witness.

And 34 months later, the process to fire Sanchez is finally underway.

::

At the other end of the spectrum is the unusually quick and decisive punishment of four social workers who were terminated this week for lapses in judgment in the case of Gabriel Fernandez, whose mother and her boyfriend have been charged with torture and murder.

The Department of Children and Family Services has for years been under fire for lengthy investigations and lax discipline in cases where children died. But in just two months, new director Phillip Browning's probe discovered enough "red flags … that just didn't go heeded" to justify the firing of two caseworkers and two supervisors.

I'm not sure now whether to wring my hands or applaud.

I'd called for "heads to roll" when the Los Angeles Times reported the details of Gabriel's death. The child's life was a horror story, illustrated with bruises, black eyes, a busted lip and BB gun wounds that should have been hard for social workers to ignore.

Then social workers bombarded me with horror stories of their own: Unconscionable caseloads, unreasonable edicts, unending obstacles; a toxic stew of ingredients that poisons the child-saving process. Their job, it seems, is a tightrope walk through dysfunction and disaster.

Still, none of that excuses dereliction or incompetence.

Firing those workers won't fix the system or save the next Gabriel Fernandez, but it does send a message: Justice delayed is justice denied. Accountability matters.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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