Under California law, teachers must report any suspected child abuse, but even those who report are not always heard. Such was the case with 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and his first-grade teacher Jennifer Garcia. Garcia testified she repeatedly reported suspected abuse to social workers who failed to prevent his death.
In January, the Palmdale teacher testified that she reported Gabriel’s physical injuries as well as his allegations that the injuries were at the hands of his mother. Those injuries included hits to the face, punches, and even bullets by a BB gun. Yet, he remained in the custody of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, 33, and then-boyfriend Isauro Aguirre, 36, until his death on May 24, 2013.
The social worker Garcia contacted, Stefanie Rodriguez, 31, another social worker, Patricia Clement, 66, and two of their supervisors, Kevin Bom, 37, and Gregory Merritt, 61, are now facing charges of one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying records in relation to this case.
First Call Made Six Months Before Gabriel’s Death
Garcia says her interactions with Rodriguez began shortly after she suspected Gabriel’s mother was physically retaliating against him for his in-school misbehavior. The educator said the boy appeared anxious about his homework and feared to go home sometimes. Gabriel told the teacher that his mother hit him with belt buckle until he bled and asked whether such bleeding was ‘normal’.
Garcia testified that she first called the child abuse hotline on Oct. 30, 2012. Rodriguez returned her call the following day and allegedly said was assigned to the case and would investigate.
However, in November 2012, things appeared to get worse. Garcia told the court Gabriel showed up with chunks of hair missing and bloody scabs on his head. He told her “his mom hit him… punched him in the face.” Garcia called Rodriguez again. Yet, nothing appeared to resolve the home abuse.
“As time went on and new injuries kept appearing, I started to feel like nothing was happening (with the case),” Garcia testified. She stated that on two occasions, Gabriel himself asked her, “‘Can you call that lady?'” in reference to the social worker.
A Failure to Document Abuse
Prosecutors allege Rodriguez and later Clement — the latter took on the case after Garcia was shot in the face — falsified records. Adding that the two should have better documented the escalating violence and lack of cooperation by the family. They additionally contend that supervisors Bom and Meritt knew or should have known that the reports were false as they contradicted physical evidence of Gabriel’s deteriorating physical health.
An investigation into the eight-month period leading up to his death discovered that his mother doused him with pepper spray, locked him in a closet with a sock forced in his mouth, and forced him to eat his own vomit. This in addition to other instances of violent physical, mental, and emotional child abuse. The county medical examiner who performed his autopsy told the grand jury that he had never witnessed so many skin injuries on a child. Gabriel had a fractured skull, fractured ribs, BB pellets lodged in his chest and pelvic region, and a penetrating burn above his groin.
Yet, despite the obvious and visible signs of abuse, documentation by both Rodriguez and Clement downplayed the injuries.
If convicted of knowingly falsifying those records and the felony count of child abuse, the defendants each face up to 10 years in state prison.