Child Protective Services under fire after another child's death

CPS faces public showdown over child deaths and systemic failure, despite promises of reform. Photo: Courtesy: Tammi Stefano

WASHINGTON, August 08, 2013  Recent, unanimous approval for a further audit of three county branches of California Child Protective Services (CPS) and the announcement of a Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection following the highly publicized death of eight-year-old Palmdale boy, Gabriel Fernandez has not been sufficient to stem mounting public anger at the statewide failures of CPS.

Systemic failures hampered by management instability have already been identified in a series of audits and reports, exemplified by an astounding 570 child deaths reported to the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in an 18 month period. The disastrous record of child safety is further verified by the discovery of 1,000 matching addresses between registered child abusers and foster homes and continued claims from parents that their children had been removed from them without good cause.

The reform movement, galvanized by the horrific death of Gabriel Fernandez who was tortured to death while his case was under CPS supervision, anticipates two potentially critical triggers will take effect by mid-August.

The twice postponed arraignment of Peal Fernandez, Gabriel’s mother, and her boyfriend, Isauro  Aguirre is scheduled for August 13. The pair is charged with capital murder of Gabriel with the special circumstance of torture. Coinciding with this is the hearing date for two social workers and two supervisors who failed to protect Gabriel but have union guaranteed rights to appeal against pending dismissal.

Protesters want to see decisive action and are calling for the death penalty for Fernandez and Aguirre. They are also pressing for criminal charges against the social workers whose inaction contributed to Gabriel’s death.

Los Angeles County DCFS Director Philip Browning has admitted the social workers performed far below department expectations in their duty to protect Gabriel, but his words have failed to allay fears the workers could evade dismissal and prosecution.

SEE RELATED: Custody in crisis: When desperation rules

One of the leading advocates for change, Tammi Stefano, Directory of the National Safe Child Coalition said:

“Gabriel’s death was preventable. He was allowed to be tortured. The termination of these social workers isn’t enough. When the gross negligence of several social workers employed by DCFS causes the death of a child, criminal charges should be sought. How can being an accomplice to this crime be anything other than criminal?”

DCFS union representative, David Green said it would be a shame if a kneejerk reaction distracted the public from what should be the focus:

“The child welfare system is broken. We have over 6,000 policies and recommended caseloads for each social worker of no more than 14 when quite often they are dealing with double or even quadruple that amount.”

He said Director Browning asked for 1,400 new social workers.

“The Board of Supervisors gave him 100, yet the department lost 300. What does that tell you?”

Green also noted the social workers have the right to due process and a fair hearing.

The tragic case of Gabriel Fernandez has become a rallying platform for people who have seen too many former promises of reform achieve nothing but cosmetic change.

Tammi Stefano was adamant:

 “We have a major problem because the CPS system isn’t working and the people of this nation have no other resource for child abuse reporting. Too many children have died and these deaths will continue until major reform is implemented. We have no intention of going away until this happens.”

Commenting on the announcement of a Blue Ribbon Commission, she said:

“At first I was delighted but then when I saw it’s being headed by a former director of CPS, I had the sickening feeling this won’t deliver the objectivity, transparency and honesty we asked for.”

At the time of his death, Gabriel had a fractured skull, three broken ribs, BB pellets embedded in his lungs and groin, cigarette burns on his skin and several teeth knocked out of his mouth.

According to reports made by his teacher and others who knew him, such injuries reflected a repeated pattern of abuse sustained over the several months he had been in his mother’s custody. She allegedly kidnapped him from the safe keeping of his grandparents.

Gabriel’s teacher said she was so concerned she had his social worker’s numbers on speed dial. She alerted her school principal and the Superintendent of Education. She described to them how the boy would confide in her and expressed her extreme fears for his safety and her frustration that, even as a mandated reporter, there appeared to be nothing she could do to help him.

Gabriel’s death came after neighbors and his teacher made numerous calls to police and CPS to alert them to the levels of abuse the young boy was regularly subjected to. Several social workers visited his home and law enforcement made a visit and yet no authority stepped in to rescue him.

The police were unable to investigate because the alleged abuse was familial, placing it under the jurisdiction of CPS. Abuse committed by a perpetrator external to a victim’s family is treated as a criminal investigation and prosecuted accordingly under a very different set of procedures (see related article: US must redeem shameful child abuse and exploitation record)

Despite very visible injuries and a history of CPS investigations into the family, investigator’s reports determined allegations of abuse were “unsubstantiated” and “unfounded” and the department took no protective action.

One referral was still open, two months after the state’s legal deadline for completing an investigation, at the time of the child’s death on May 24th this year.

The Gabriel Fernandez tragedy comes in the wake of an in-depth, independent report on child fatalities and critical incidents presented personally to DCFS Director, Philip Browning in April last year. The report was commissioned by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from the Children’s Special Investigation Unit (CSIU) in response to the unprecedented number of child deaths.  It outlined widespread systemic failure of procedures and practices that required immediate remedial action.

The report cited front end investigative failures, the ineffective implementation of decision-making tools and strategies; the need for improved communication, integration and coordination of services; and the need for strategic human resource management.

It significantly noted a need for the clarification of terms such as “abuse unsubstantiated” or “unfounded” and stated:

“When initial contact with a family is flawed, the course for potential disaster is set from day 1 and it becomes very difficult to stop the runaway train.”

The report authors said the fact-based analyses presented a unique opportunity to examine the need and possibility for wholesale change in the way DCFS and the County of Los Angeles carry out the charge of providing services to families and children in crises.

While Gabriel Fernandez has for many become the face of CPS inaction and bungling, Shawn McMillan a civil rights attorney who has specialized in taking CPS cases said he gets around a thousand calls every month from parents looking for representation.

He said complaints may be due to CPS inaction as in Gabriel’s case, but often they cover unnecessary or inappropriate interference. He said the basic problem is social workers too frequently misdiagnose and mishandle cases.

In agreement with the CSIU report, he cited one of the main stumbling blocks for inexperienced social workers was the excessive number of policies governing decision making. He said the 4,000 page, step by step procedural manual effectively overrides critical analyses and sets social workers on an incorrect path of logic that prevents them from analyzing particular sets of circumstances within the appropriate framework.

McMillan said:

“The tactics some social workers use are so unprofessional, yet they get away with it every day, and their faulty evidence gets accepted by courts.”













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Clare O'Toole

Clare O'Toole is a journalist who has written for several Australian publications, including Times of the West and Freemantle Community Radio.  With an MA in Journalism, O'Toole seeks to uncover injustice in the family courts and what happens when families breakdown. 

Contact Clare O'Toole


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