Thursday, August 21, 2014

When "Slipping Through The Cracks" Is No Excuse: The Negligence Of Some Child Welfare Workers

'It was just like every inch of this child had been abused,'
"Before 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was allegedly beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend, they doused him with pepper spray, forced him to eat his own vomit and locked him in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams, according to court records made public Monday."
But that was not the entire extent of his abuse. You may not want to read the entire L.A. Times article if you are sensitive to the issue because it contains some graphic descriptions of unbelievable abuse, but know that the case has sparked an outcry for reform of a child welfare system that was clearly inept.
When paramedics arrived, they found Gabriel naked in a bedroom, not breathing, with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. He died two days later.
"It was just like every inch of this child had been abused," testified James Cermak, a Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic.
Gabriel's mother, Pearl, said that Gabriel had hit his head on a dresser. 

Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, are in jail awaiting trial for capital murder and special circumstances of torture. 

The torture consisted of heinous acts, the least of which was making Gabriel wear humiliating girl's dresses to school because he liked playing with dolls. His murder has gone viral, because, like another publicized abuse/death - the case of Zachary Dutro Boggess - one of the "reasons" for his abuse was that he acted too "gay". Another reason: a system where "slipping through the cracks" means death. Months before his death, Gabriel wrote a suicide note, but it was dismissed as nothing consequential by child welfare workers (it contained no mode of suicide - kids have to be more specific than that!).  Reports of abuse from teachers were poorly followed up. "Huge caseloads" and "inexperience" were cited. 

"Inexperience". How experienced do you have to be to read a suicide note of any sort and not take action? How inexperienced do you have to be to visit a house more than several times, see bruises and not put the dots together? How inexperienced do you have to be to take the initial testimony of siblings as the truth - kids who are obviously scared the same thing will happen to them? 

The Good, The Bad And The Totally Inept

To be fair, some social workers can only be as effective as the law allows: Child Protective Services vary from region to region according to what authority they actually have. Some parents are very crafty and intimidating (e.g. Fred Phelps - the "Man Addicted To Hate" - repeatedly fended off CPS in Topeka, KS despite warnings from teachers and neighbors). Some truly are over-burdened with caseloads and become duly depressed about their work.  

The workers in Gabriel's and Zachary's cases, however, were absolutely negligent:

Four county Department of Child and Family Services employees will be fired over their involvement in the case of Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old Palmdale boy who died in May, after allegedly being tortured by his mother's live-in boyfriend.

According to a statement from County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, the four include two social workers and two supervisors. Three others involved in evaluating multiple reports of abuse of Fernandez were issued warning or reprimand letters.
DCFS records showed that there had been five previous reports of abuse of the little boy, but that social workers had deemed them "unfounded." A sixth case was being investigated at the time of his death.
Five reports. FIVE. Five reports and a suicide note. 

Zachary Dutro-Brugess was murdered in, of all places, a homeless shelter. His abuse was reported by his older sister who had been abused as well, but not by the shelter.

While [Jack] Schwab [Director of the Good Neighbor Shelter in Tigard, Oregon] says that the staff never saw anything that could be reported, it's hard to believe that such abuse could have gone on without the staff having even an inkling. And even those inklings can be reported.
Negligent Abuse

What happened to both children might have been prevented, had people paid attention. Unfortunately, we can't make lack of attention a crime, nor can we make negligence or ineptitude a felony. To some, the firing of two social workers and two supervisors was enough in Gabriel's case. To some, the consciences of the Good Neighbor Shelter will deliver justice. 

To Gabriel and Zachary, however, justice may not have been served.

Just a thought.

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