By Tom James
(Reuters) - The case against four Los Angeles County social workers accused of child abuse in the beating death of an 8-year-old boy under their supervision can move ahead, a judge ruled Monday.
Judge Mary Lou Villar found that sufficient evidence existed to charge the four in the death of Gabriel Fernandez, who was found dead at his mother’s home in 2013. Prosecutors previously alleged that the two social workers and two supervisors minimized the abuse Fernandez suffered, despite routine visits to his Los Angeles-area home and warnings from his teacher that he was in danger.
Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement, social workers for the Department of Children and Family Services, and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt all face one count each of child abuse, as well as tampering charges over accusations that they falsified reports of escalating abuse of the boy.
Fernandez was found dead in May 2013 with injuries that included a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns over his body.
James Barnes, the attorney for Gregory Merritt, called the prosecution of social workers for harm done to a child by parents "unprecedented" in a phone interview Monday.
“It has serious consequences for anyone who practices as a social worker not only in Los Angeles County but across the country,” he said, because it could expose social workers to criminal liability, and in social care “no one has a crystal ball.”
Fernandez's mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, were charged in 2014 with murder in the child's beating death. The trials for the pair have not yet been scheduled.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office did not release a statement Monday, and a spokesperson declined to make any of the attorneys working on the case available for interview.The social workers and their supervisors will reappear in court on April 3.
(Reporting by Tom James in Seattle; Editing by Patrick Enright and Leslie Adler)