System Failure: The Case of Gabriel Fernandez

Netflix's mini-series sheds light on the existing issues of child welfare protection programs that failed to protect 8-year-old Gabriel from his abusers.

Trigger Warning: This article contains descriptions of physical and emotional abuse and neglect that may be triggering for some readers. Please refer to our Resources page if you or someone you know is seeking help.

At only 8-years-old, Gabriel Fernandez had endured a lifetime of pain and suffering. He was brutally murdered by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isuaro Aguirre, after years of intense and unimaginable abuse. The heart-wrenching six-part docuseries, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez (Netflix 2019), eloquently showcases the ins and outs of this specific failure at the systemic level, as well as support and interventions that could have potentially prevented Gabriel’s tragic death.

The Case

Gabriel Fernandez was a sweet boy who wanted nothing more than to be accepted and loved. From a young age, he was constantly moved around between the homes of his relatives, until he moved in to live with his mother, Pearl, in 2012. After experiencing years of abuse, of the physical and emotional kind, as well as being severely neglected, he was tragically murdered in his own home by Pearl and Isuaro. Throughout the investigation of his murder, it was discovered that he was kept in isolation through confinement to sleeping in a wooden dresser, would be constantly separated from his brother and sister, was forced to eat cat litter, and had several physical ailments such as BB gun wounds, broken ribs, and a cracked skull. This specific case was a catalyst to uncovering the underlying pretenses of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and attempting to better understand how such severe abuse went unnoticed by the systems meant to intervene.

Falling Through the Cracks

In many ways, Gabriel had been overlooked, and thus had fallen through the cracks of the system. At every level of social systems, there are structures in place that allow cases to be either advanced to the next level, resolved, or absolved. Therefore, it would be a fallacy to point fingers only in one direction; this tragedy is a systemic failure of the structure as a whole. The first person to report the abuse to DCFS was Gabriel’s teacher, Jennifer Garcia. She noticed bruises and scratches on Gabriel’s body, in addition to Gabriel verbally mentioning being hit with a belt buckle. She was put in contact with Stefanie Rodriguez, a social worker. As a future educator myself, I was upset and confused as to how his teacher could let Gabriel return to his home after seeing proof of his abuse. In my mind, I thought, "Why doesn’t she just take him home? Why would she allow him to return to his home after seeing the physical marks of abuse on his body?" Yet, in reality, the teacher did what she could in her power: she reported to DCFS several times and continuously checked in with Gabriel. If she were to take him home, she could be charged with kidnapping and this would do much more harm than good. Therefore, it was in the hands of the social work system at that point.

The series points to a domino effect within the system, starting with the lack of uniformity between all cases that are inputted. It occurred to me while watching, that not all cases are treated equally. In an ideal world, each case would have to be processed in the same way, to give each child equal opportunity to receive the help and resources they need. Little time was actually taken to interview Gabriel, examine his state of physical and mental health, and look into his living situation. In his case, DCFS “took the mom's word for it, didn’t ask to see the boy” (Episode 4, 39:30). To me, there doesn’t seem like any possible valid reason that DSCFS would not invest their time and resources towards helping Gabriel. Yet, it became evident that the system lacked resources, was extremely underfunded, and did not have enough staff to properly take on the influx of cases - all factors which hinder the effectiveness of the system.

Wages Over Welfare?

“My supervisor said they don’t want us to do anything, because they don’t want to pay overtime."

In episode 4, Arturo Martinez, a security guard working at the Palmdale Department of Public Social Services office saw Gabriel walk in with his mother, and the physical marks of abuse were what he described as a “twenty out of ten”. He expresses his concerns to his co-worker, Marisela Corona, from the domestic violence department, and is told, “my supervisor said they don’t want us to do anything, because they don’t want to pay overtime. They don’t want us to stay.” Marisela Corona was told by her supervisor to not get involved in the case, and was told to give Arturo Martinez, a security guard who is not at all trained in social work, all of Gabriel’s information so that he could report it to the police. The injustices and disregard for child welfare in this scene absolutely baffled me. Perhaps fiscal pressure on the DCFS is extremely prominent, and employees are trained to prioritize financial means over child welfare? This calls for a re-evaluation and alignment of the goals of these systems that are in place to prevent tragedies like that of Gabriel's.

Steps Toward Recovery

In the series’ interview with Wendy Smith from the University of Southern California School of Social Work, there was a quote about recovery and intervention that really stuck with me. She says, “One of the most important aspects in recovering from trauma—that’s abuse trauma—is moving it outside of yourself. It’s not something about you, it’s not something you did, it’s something that happened to you. I think that shift is the most important juncture toward healing” (Episode 5, 45:51). I think fostering resilience and instilling a perspective of personal growth is so important, and I love that the series included future steps towards healing.

For more information about Gabriel's case, I highly recommend watching The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, available on Netflix!

Written by: Daphna