LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — A California appeals court has thrown out criminal charges against four social workers in the torture and murder of 8-year-old Palmdale boy Gabriel Fernandez.
Stefanie Rodriguez, 34; Patricia Clement, 69; Kevin Bom, 40; and Gregory Merritt, 64, were charged with child abuse and falsifying public records. All four were fired from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services after an internal investigation into the boy's May 24, 2013 death.
In a 2-1 opinion, the three-justice panel concluded there was no probable cause to hold the two social workers and their supervisors on the charges.
"We conclude that the petitioners never had the requisite duty to control the abusers and did not have care or custody of Gabriel for purposes of Penal Code section 273a, subdivision (a). We further conclude that the petitioners were not officers within the meaning of Government Code section 6200," wrote Justice Francis Rothschild.
"There is, therefore, no probable cause to hold them on charges of violating those laws and the trial court should have granted the motions to dismiss," the opinion continued.
Justice Victoria Gerrard Chaney concurred that the four could not be charged with child abuse, but wrote a dissent arguing that they could be prosecuted as public officers under the relevant government code section.
"Allowing a social worker to evade liability for falsifying a public document would incentivize social workers to put their own interests in avoiding liability for their misdeeds above the purpose of the state's child welfare statutory scheme, which is child safety," Chaney wrote in her concurring and dissenting opinion.
"The petitioners' actions here prevented the system from working in whatever way it might have had they done their jobs honestly, and offers no incentive for either DCFS or individual social workers to work to reform and repair the parts of the system that may fail the children it is intended to protect," Chaney wrote.
"We have, in effect, encouraged DCFS and its social workers to cover their tracks if they stumble on the cracks in the system."
Gabriel's mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, was sentenced to life in prison, while her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, was sentenced to death. During the trial, it was revealed that Gabriel had been starved, kept in handcuffs, shot with BB guns, doused with pepper spray, forced to eat his own vomit and locked in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams.
When Fernandez called 911 on May 22, 2013 to report her son was not breathing, she told sheriff's deputies who responded that Gabriel had fallen and hit his head on a dresser. Paramedics found Gabriel naked in a bedroom with a cracked skull three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. He died two days later.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)
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