Gabriel Fernandez: 8-Year-Old's Beating Death Points to An Entire City's Failure

Despite multiple abuse referrals from relatives, teachers, and even other mothers at school, the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) failed to prevent the brutal torture and ultimate death of an 8-year-old boy at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, exposing grave incompetence that has long existed but remained unaddressed for far too long in a system meant to protect children. 

Gabriel's mauled body was discovered last Wednesday in his Southern California home by the L.A. County Fire Department, who arrived after responding to reports that the boy was not breathing. Gabriel's injuries included a fractured skull, broken ribs, burn marks throughout his entire body, and "wounds that indicted he had been tied up and tortured." 

His mother's boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, 32, was arrested the same night Gabriel was discovered and held on suspicion of attempted murder after telling the L.A. County Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau he was responsible for the injuries. The mother, Pearl Fernandez, 29, was arrested on suspicion of felony child abuse after admitting her presence in the acts while doing nothing to stop it. 

Gabriel was taken to the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and was in critical condition Wednesday night. He died on Friday. 

On Tuesday, both Aguirre and Fernandez were charged with capital murder with the special circumstance of torture. 

Gabriel lived with his grandparents up until October, when Fernandez won legal custody of her child. It took all but seven months of living with his mother, and seven months of repeatedly ignored reports of abuse to the L.A. County DCFS, to effectively kill an 8-year-old child. 

To say that Gabriel was a novel case that simply slipped through the system's cracks would be misleading. 

In July 2011, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors asked for a review of the DCFS Emergency Response Command Post (ERCP), after "allegations that children were spending excessive time, and receiving inadequate care, at ERCP, while waiting for more permanent placement with relatives, foster families, group homes, etc." The ERCP's responsibilities include investigating allegations of child abuse while the DCFS is closed on nights, weekends, and holidays.

The 2011 report found that the ERCP "does not track the total time children are waiting to be placed" in more permanent homes with relatives, foster families, or group homes, leaving children to stay at ERCP facilities for more than 24 hours. This is considered an "overstay" and is a violation of California state law.

The report also found that the ERCP did not complete the required criminal background clearances on potential hires or promotions to sensitive positions in the ERCP and DCFS units. 

In March of 2012, at the request of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, the California state auditor reviewed the DCFS and found similarly alarming problems in the child protective system. 

State law mandates that investigations of abuse or neglect allegations must be completed within 30 days. As of July 2010, 9,300 investigations had been open for longer than 30 days. Although this backlog has decreased, as of January 2012 it was still at 3,200, twice as large as it was in July 2009.

After an abuse allegation or referral, social workers are required to make monthly visits at the child and parent's home to resolve any safety concerns and/or other issues. However, seven of the 30 cases reviewed had visits that occurred outside of the homes for three or more consecutive months.

These two reports only reviewed a handful of cases, and highlight unstable management and severe deficiencies in a system designed to protect children from harm. Until the L.A. County DCFS overhauls its policies and implements changes to stop bureaucratic backlogs and sluggish performance, the agency will continue to have blood on its hands.