Judge: L.A. Social Workers Must Stand Trial for Criminal Negligence

Four Los Angeles County social workers assigned to a child welfare case that ultimately ended with the boy’s death will stand trial for criminal negligence, a county judge ruled Monday. This is the first time a social worker in L.A. County has faced criminal charges for duties related to the job and it is only one of a few similar cases ever filed nationwide.

“This is outrageous and unprecedented,” said Shelly Albert, an attorney representing one of the former DCFS employees. But prosecutors say this was an unprecedented case. Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar agreed Monday, stating that red flags pointing to horrific abuse of the child "were everywhere.”

It was common knowledge that the boy was living in an abusive home and that the mistreatment was escalating. Yet the DCFS employees mishandled evidence and declined to file timely reports, the judge said. According to prosecutors, they even intentionally falsified material before prematurely closing the boy’s file. The eight-year-old, Gabriel Fernandez, was eventually tortured and beaten to death, allegedly by his mother and her boyfriend.

Regardless of the case’s merits, some experts worry that the criminal charges could dissuade people from entering an already overworked field.

“It could have a real chilling effect on the desire to become a child social worker,” said Rebecca Gonzales, director of government relations for the National Assn. of Social Workers’ California chapter. “It is a devastating case for social workers all over the nation and especially in L.A. County.”


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