When Gabriel Fernandez was wheeled into a local Palmdale, CA hospital in 2013, first responders said that they had never before seen such extreme injuries on a child. Their unconscious patient had a cracked skull and broken ribs into addition to numerous BB gun pellets lodged into different parts of his body. Gabriel's guardians, Pearl Fernandez and Isauro Aguirre, were to blame for the abhorrent physical abuse — but they weren't the only people who put the child in danger. In the Netflix true crime docu-series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, the social workers that neglected to protect Gabriel from harm are also put on trial.
According to numerous testimonies in the series, the violence that Gabriel faced leading up to his death occurred for over eight months. His siblings told director Brian Knappenberger that their younger brother was tortured extensively, forced to eat cat litter and rotten food, among other things. The couple also kept Gabriel locked in a cabinet.
"What happened to Gabriel was the beginning of what was so infuriating," Knappenberger told EW. "We needed to know, how so many people saw this child in that condition and didn’t stop it?”
As it turned out, a whole system was complicit.
After Gabriel's death, an anonymous source from the Los Angeles County Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) stepped forward to release an official document that exposed a shocking pattern of neglect from the organization. DCFS was made aware of the abuse happening in the Fernandez family home on multiple occasions, but reports show that there was little done to alleviate the situation. Gabriel's teacher filed a report, as did a security guard at the County Welfare Office, but the DCFS didn't act adequately.
Once the report was released to the public, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey quickly moved to prosecute the four social workers named involved in Gabriel's case. Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom, and Gregory Merritt were hauled to court facing felony charges of child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with Gabriel's death.
The social workers, who each handled more than 30 cases on average, blamed the oversight on their massive workload. "I know, in the Department of Children & Family Services, critical services become a challenge when you're overworked," said Merritt in the documentary. "And if there wasn't so much stress, then you may see those red flags. The system is overloaded."
As Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami built a case against Pearl and Aguirre, a case was also being built against the four DCFS workers, and onlookers couldn't help but be wary of the system that allowed Gabriel to slip through the cracks. The more scrutiny the trial got, the more the public began voicing concerns about the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization.
The long and emotional trial concluded in 2018, with both Pearl and Aguirre being convicted of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of intentional murder by torture — Gabriel's mother was sentenced to life in prison without probation, and her boyfriend is currently on death row.
As for the four child protection workers who were assigned to Gabriel, the case against them was thrown out. A California appellate court ruled to dismiss the lower court's charges against them, ruling that the defendants "never had the requisite duty to control the abusers."
"The system is overwhelmingly oriented toward parent rights, toward family preservation," child advocate Elizabeth Bartholet explained in the documentary. "And there is very, very little emphasis on child rights...it's based on valuing adult rights." That could be the very reason that Pearl, a mother with a documented history of violence towards Gabe and her two other children, was allowed to maintain custody.