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Boy's death prompts outrage, red flags of child abuse 'ignored'

May 31, 2013|By Garrett Therolf

The death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy has sparked outrage from his family and prompted questions from county officials, as documents showed the boy's mother -- charged with murder in his death -- was previously investigated six times for abuse allegations over the last decade.

"The red flags were all over the place. They were ignored. It is just inexplicable to me," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, noting that the Sheriff's Department was also aware of the abuse allegations.

When paramedics arrived at his Palmdale home last week, Gabriel Fernandez's 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 were knocked out of his mouth.

His mother's boyfriend allegedly told authorities that he beat Gabriel repeatedly for lying and "being dirty," according to confidential county documents reviewed by The Times.

He died Friday of his injuries. His mother and her boyfriend were charged with murder and torture. They have not entered pleas, but records show Gabriel's mother told paramedics that the boy's injuries were a result of self-mutilation.

Social workers with Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services appeared to miss numerous warning signs at the home, according to the county documents.

Gabriel had previously written a note saying he was contemplating suicide, records show. His teacher told authorities he often appeared bruised and battered at school. BB pellets left bruises across his face. For reasons that are not clear, all but one investigation was determined to be "unfounded."

At the time of Gabriel's death, there was yet another, unresolved allegation of child abuse in his file. That referral has lingered two months past a legally mandated deadline for completing an investigation, records show.

The social worker assigned to that case did not make first contact with the family until 20 days after the complaint was received, and then "made minimal attempts to investigate," according to an internal county report.

Department of Children and Family Services Director Philip Browning acknowledged in an interview that the system failed Gabriel.

The case illustrates a need for more "critical thinking and common sense" in evaluating cases, he said.

Four social workers have been placed on desk duty pending possible disciplinary action.

But Gabriel's death sent fresh shock waves through the county's child protection bureaucracy, still struggling to implement reforms after dozens of abuse and neglect deaths in recent years involving children who had been under the system's supervision.

The department has been criticized for lenient treatment of workers who fail to properly protect children in cases such as Gabriel's. One recent internal agency review found no workers had been fired in 15 instances where children died, even when their errors were deemed "egregious."

"I feel like they all should be fired," said Elizabeth Carranza, Gabriel's aunt. "They didn't listen to my nephew. They were completely deaf and blind."

Gabriel's relatives and friends have mobilized to put pressure on the department to hold workers accountable and take evidence of child abuse more seriously. Several protests have been staged, and a Facebook page has gathered more than 20,000 supporters.

"We are protesting their handling of this case 300% because we want to make sure this never happens again," Carranza said.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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