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An abused boy is dead at age 8, and again we ask how it happened

Gabriel Fernandez's mother and boyfriend are not the only ones who will have to answer for his death.

June 01, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Gabriel Fernandez, 8, of Palmdale died after alleged abuse by his mother and her boyfriend. The two are charged with murder.
Gabriel Fernandez, 8, of Palmdale died after alleged abuse by his mother…

He was 8 years old.

That's a great age for most kids. They're curious, innocent, full of life.

But Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale was in a living hell, by official accounts, and had stopped breathing when paramedics arrived at his home on May 22.

His skull was fractured in two places. Two ribs were broken. Teeth had been knocked out or possibly yanked out. BB pellets were embedded in his lung. His skin had been burned.

It's a horrific, stomach-turning level of abuse, as detailed Friday in a Page One story by my colleague Garrett Therolf, and it's impossible to understand how anyone could do that to a child.

Two days after he was hospitalized, Gabriel died. His mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, were charged with murder and torture. Aguirre told authorities he had beaten Gabriel on numerous occasions "for lying and being dirty," according to authorities.

If they're guilty, I can't think of a penalty too severe. But the mother and boyfriend are not the only ones who will have to answer for Gabriel's death.

The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, with a long string of shocking failures in the deaths of children, is in the middle of this one, too. The agency left Gabriel in his mother's care despite six allegations of abuse over the last decade involving Gabriel and other children.

And we're not talking about scant evidence that Gabriel was in danger.

Caught up in a family dispute over his guardianship, Gabriel was taken from relatives last October by his mother. Immediately afterward, Gabriel's teacher reported that the boy had facial bruising and said his mother had struck him with a belt buckle and punched him in the stomach.

A month later, the same teacher said Gabriel came to school with a "busted lip" and claimed his mother had punched him.

In January of this year, the teacher reported that Gabriel's face was swollen and bruised and he said his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun.

In March, a therapist reported that Gabriel might have been sexually assaulted by a relative, and that he had indicated he might kill himself.

Eight years old, and this poor child was thinking about suicide.

And what was Family Services doing all the while?

Not nearly enough.

Some of the allegations couldn't be substantiated by caseworkers, and Gabriel recanted some of his own statements. But how hard could it have been to connect the dots?

There's no indication that anyone from Family Services considered the totality of the allegations, or gave enough consideration to the fact that Gabriel's mother had a criminal record and a history of gang involvement and substance abuse.

A confidential internal review of the case found evidence of multiple failures on the part of department employees. Among other problems, the review found that "the case plan was inadequate," the department "did not complete required visits," an investigation was closed "despite no resolution to problems," there was inadequate or no contact with other family members, and that Gabriel was not interviewed in a neutral location, away from those who might influence his answers.

All of that is inexcusable. So is the fact that at the time of Gabriel's death, one abuse allegation had not yet been resolved, and the social worker on the case "made minimal attempts to investigate," according to the review.

So what did Family Services Director Philip Browning do about all of this?

He put four employees on desk duty pending further review.

Desk duty? You mean they're still on the job and getting paid to make decisions about children's lives?

I would have had a different assignment for them and anyone else who touched this case: Leave the building immediately. Depending on their level of involvement, I would have fired them or suspended them without pay while the review continues. And I would have lined all their supervisors up against the wall and ordered them to explain how there could have been such a catastrophic breakdown.

Sure, these are difficult jobs and thousands of kids are at risk at any time. And although Family Services employees do a lot of good and even heroic work under difficult circumstances, some children will die because their own relatives are monsters.

But Gabriel Fernandez is dead despite overwhelming evidence that he was in peril for months, if not longer. And a recent review of the department found that in 15 other cases where a child died, nobody was fired despite "egregious errors" by department staff.

Maybe this leniency is why Browning is having so much trouble changing the "culture" of the department, as he's been trying to do in his 15 months on the job. By some accounts, he's made some headway, and in an interview Friday he laid out several ways in which he's trying to establish more "common sense, critical thinking and accountability."

"It defies my imagination how someone could not have seen this coming," Browning said. But then he began to couch it, saying that "Monday morning quarterbacking is very easy" and the "culture can't be changed overnight and it can't be changed in a year or two."

Nonsense. Just tell people to do their jobs, and crack down on them when they don't.

If Browning can't get the job done soon, the Board of Supervisors — which ultimately is responsible for this long-running nightmare — should find a replacement.

At 2:52 p.m. on May 24, Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale was pronounced dead.

He was 8 years old.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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