LOS ANGELES (AP) — Prosecutors charged four Los Angeles County social workers with child abuse, saying they were so negligent in handling the case of an 8-year-old boy who died of gruesome, multiple injuries that just like his abusers they were criminally responsible.
The four, who include two supervisors, also were charged with falsifying public records.
The Department of Children and Family Services said Thursday all four were fired last year after an internal investigation into the 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale.
"In our rigorous reconstruction of the events surrounding Gabriel's death, we found that four of our social workers had failed to perform their jobs. I directed that all of them be discharged," the department's director, Philip Browning, said in a statement.
One of the four successfully appealed his termination to the county's Civil Service Commission and has been reinstated, prompting Children's Services to appeal that ruling in court.
Prosecuting welfare workers for physical abuse caused by another is rare but not unprecedented. In New York in 2011, a child welfare worker and his supervisor were charged with negligent homicide in the death of a 4-year-old girl. They eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges.
District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison said this is the first such case to be prosecuted in Los Angeles County, and prosecutors believe it may be the first in the state.
An arrest warrant filed March 28 identifies the four Los Angeles social workers as Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, Patricia Clement, 65, Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60. Merritt, who was one of the supervisors, successfully challenged his termination and is now working for the county in another capacity.
All four appeared in court Thursday to be arraigned, but the hearing was postponed until April 21. Instead, bail for each was set at $100,000.
Their lawyers argued they should be released without bail, saying all had longtime ties to the area, arrived in court as ordered and had done much good for their communities.
"My client's name will be cleared," Rodriguez's attorney, Lance Filer, said outside court.
Clement, who was seen sobbing before the arraignment, is a former nun who worked most of her career as a public servant, according to her lawyer, Darcy Calkins. She also said she expects Clement will be exonerated.
Clement has a graduate degree in marriage and family counseling and served as a chaplain at juvenile hall, Calkins said.
Bom is a licensed therapist and elder in his church, and Merritt teaches college courses, according to their lawyers.
"We're talking about a situation where there's a death of a child," Judge Sergio Tapia said in setting bail, which was less than the $155,000 prosecutors had sought. But the judge praised the four for arriving in court as promised and remaining well- mannered as they sat there all day.
If convicted of child abuse and falsifying records, they could face as much as 10 years in prison.
Gabriel died May 24, 2013, of injuries that included a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns across his body. Gabriel's mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, have pleaded not guilty to murder and are in jail awaiting trial. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
The Department of Children and Family Services opened a case file on him on Oct. 31, 2012, more than six months before he died. In bringing charges, District Attorney Jackie Lacey said it was the social workers' responsibility to protect him.
Instead, prosecutors say, Rodriguez and Clement falsified reports that should have documented signs that Gabriel was suffering from escalating physical abuse and that his family had stopped participating in efforts to keep the family together. They say Bom and Merritt, as supervisors, knew or should have known those reports were false.
"By minimizing the significance of the physical, mental and emotional injuries that Gabriel suffered, these social workers allowed a vulnerable boy to remain at home and continue to be abused," Lacey said.
In the New York case, Administration for Children's Services caseworker Damon Adams and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, were charged with criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a child in the death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce, who was repeatedly beaten and tied to a bed before her death in 2010.
Adams pleaded guilty in 2013 to misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records, official misconduct and endangering the welfare of a child. Bell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child.
Associated Press reporter Brian Melley contributed to this story.