A Response to the Film: The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez
This is just an interpretation of the film as it relates to the public opinion of the social services workers who were referred to in the documentary. I am a social work student (currently) and although I understand public outrage, am hoping that this can present some understanding as to other perspectives.
The murder of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old boy, was an event that happened in the city of Palmdale and involved four of Los Angeles County’s Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), social workers. The case itself was one that centered around terrible forms of abuse and resulted in the conviction of the mother and her boyfriend. The mother received life in prison while the father was given the death penalty.
One of the major concerns that came out of this case was the fact that many in the public – as well as the LA County District Attorney – felt there were people in the social services department who were responsible for the young boy’s death. Four of these – two supervisory social workers and two social work employees – were tried on child abuse and falsifying public records in the death of young Fernandez. While there are many in the arena of public opinion who believe that the DFCS should be held liable in this situation, there are numerous other factors that the general public doesn’t understand that must be taken into consideration.
The Department of Family and Children's Services (DFCS)
According to their website, the mission of the DFCS is “The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services promotes child safety and well-being by partnering with communities to strengthen families, keeping children at home whenever possible, and connecting them with stable, loving homes in times of need.” (DFCS, 2020). A couple of the key terms to be taken from that statement are “to strengthen families” and “keeping children home whenever possible”. The county’s goal is to preserve the family unit and to maintain the connection between the children and their birth parents. This is a philosophy that seems compatible with maintaining a healthy society since many social problems can be associated with a broken family.
During the documentary film, The Murder of Gabriel Fernandez, interviews are done with those who are associated with DFCS and the point that the goal of the department is to “keep families together” is clearly made. Even in situations where there is turmoil or conflict within the family unit, social work professionals recognize the value of working towards homeostasis and that the removal of children from the household can cause trauma to the child, perhaps even greater harm than the original forms of neglect or abuse.
Most of the actions or enforcements practiced by social workers are guided by policy and law. Differential responses (DR) are permitted to an extent, by California state policies within child welfare practices. DR are designed to allow a reasonable degree of flexibility and permit the worker to use their own judgment and discretion while handling a case. According to the department of social services:
The LA DFCS
Differential response, also called alternative response, encourages community agencies to participate in supporting families who are
considered low risk, allowing child protection services to focus on
the more serious cases in which abuse and neglect have been confirmed.
This approach recognizes that variations in families' needs and
strengths require different approaches. Assessments are done to help
agencies develop strategies for identifying child and family needs and
concerns and tail— DFCS
Do you beleive the mother in this case should have received the Death Penalty?
Even in situations where there is turmoil or conflict within the family unit, social work professionals recognize the value of working towards homeostasis and that the removal of children from the household can cause trauma to the child, perhaps even greater harm than the original forms of neglect or abuse.
Social Workers charged
In the trial, highlighted in the film, four social workers: Kevin Bom, Stefanie Rodriguez, Gregory Merritt, and Patricia Clement, had charges filed against them by the District Attorney, J. Lacey. According to court documents, “The People charged petitioners with felony child abuse (Pen. Code, § 273a, subd. (a)) and falsifying public records (Gov. Code, § 6200). At a preliminary hearing, the magistrate held them to answer the charges.” (People v. Bom, et al., 2020). Originally, in the Superior Court, they were found guilty of the charges against them, but the appeals court reversed those claims. The claim of “felony child abuse” seems to be the most substantial count against the four and implies direct responsibility for the actions of Fernandez’s mother and boyfriend.
For one who isn’t familiar with the duties, obligations and practices of those who work in the social work field, the case might seem cut and dry and that the responsibility is with the DCFS. Popular culture portrays social workers as people who charge into people’s homes and remove children. In reality, that is one of the last things a social worker wishes to do. There are other options which are held higher that include maintaining the family unit and trying to work towards family reunification when possible.
These options were at best, hinted at in the film and the social workers, other than a brief interview with Merritt and some philosophical talk by administrators, did not speak. What was said by the workers who did talk, was that they were doing their jobs and performing their duties within the scope of the profession.
The Social Workers' Appeal Case: Kevin Bom et al. vs The Superior Court of Los Angeles
Things Seen and Heard
One of the obvious questions that come to mind, is how sound was the judgment used by those workers who were associated with Fernandez. HIPPA policies prohibit any patient details and are designed to protect the client as well as the social worker. DR offers the option of personal judgment – in this case, it seems that the desire to maintain the family unit, superseded other pressing concerns – and professional guidance. What seems more disconcerting, is if the phrase “supporting families who are considered low risk, allowing child protection services to focus on the more serious cases” which is taken directly from the DFCS page leads to two troubling speculations: 1) The social workers were not aware as to the extent of Fernandez’s situation; 2) There were more serious cases than the Fernandez one which were the focus of the social worker's attention. The only other option, which is available, is that the social work professionals were indifferent to Fernandez and basically, did not care.
Other considerations to keep in mind are the fact that Gabriel’s teacher contacted the DFCS numerous times, notifying them of the abuse. A security guard in a county office contacted the authorities to warn them of things he had seen in Gabriel that he (the guard) found disturbing. There were other persons – family members even – who made efforts to intervene on Gabriel’s behalf. These facts contribute to the idea that Gabriel was obviously in danger and that his situation was brought before the county authorities. What exactly was made known to the social workers in question, isn’t completely revealed in the film.
Should the social services employees be held liable for the death of clients?
Some WitnessesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Some Final Thoughts
These facts, along with the details of the Fernandez situation, make this a difficult case to analyze. An observer – as well as the LA County – district attorney obviously felt someone should have intervened in the situation. The social workers were the fall guys. Another perspective suggests the need to maintain the family unit. Families after all, are the backbones of a healthy society. Children, it is believed, are better off with the people who brought them into the world.
Clearly, there is no simple answer. Just a sad case – one of many: two adults displaced because of a mistake made, a little boy gone, four social workers whose lives were influenced, and countless other family members who have been traumatized.
The Department of Family and Children’s Services. (2016). Family maintenance services for court and voluntary cases. Los Angeles: Department of Family and Children’s Services.
Herman, J. (producer), Knappenberger, B. (director). (2020). The trials of Gabriel Fernandez [motion picture]. United States: Netflix.
Kevin Bom, et al. v Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles County
Super. Ct. No. BA445260, (2020).
Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. (2020).
People v. Kevin Bom, et al. Los Angeles Superior Court, No. BA445260 (2016).
United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Differential response in child protective services. Washington, D.C. :Administration for Children and Families.