While child welfare agencies are involved in litigation when children known to the system die, it is highly rare that criminal charges are leveled against the actual employees carrying out services in the community or in foster care. But the Los Angeles courts appear headed for such a trial.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli denied a motion to dismiss charges against four Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) workers related to the death of Gabriel Fernandez, who was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend in May of 2013.
In 2016, prosecutors filed charges against the four workers – none of whom still work for DCFS – for felony child abuse and falsifying public records.
“I have spent a lot of time, needless to say, on the case,” Lomeli said. “This isn’t something I did by the seat of my pants.”
Lomeli said that DCFS had not properly documented the abuse done to Fernandez, nor his mother’s refusal to accept counseling. The former DCFS employees – Patricia Clement, Stefanie Rodriguez, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt – all face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
“We are confident in our client’s case when all the facts come out at trial,” said Lance Filer, attorney for former social worker Stefanie Rodriguez, in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Fernandez’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, has already been sentenced to life in prison for his murder. Her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, has been sentenced to death.
The charges against these caseworkers is not without precedent. In 2011, Brooklyn child welfare workers Chereece Bell and Damon Adams were arrested and then indicted in connection with the 2010 death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce.
The charges arose when Marchella, a child whose case was being monitored by the New York Administration for Children’s Services, was found dead in her home in September 2010. She was severely underweight, and had 60 doses of Claritin and 30 doses of Benadryl in her system.
The New York workers were actually charged with criminally negligent homicide by former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. So the stakes were significantly higher.
Ultimately, both Adams and Bell pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, and then had that charge wiped from their records with the completion of several hundred hours of community service work.
Pierce’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder. Pierce’s grandmother, Loretta Brett, was convicted of manslaughter.