County to ask court to up­hold fir­ing

Child wel­fare agency plans to fight the re­in­state­ment of a for­mer so­cial worker.

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - By Gar­rett Therolf gar­rett.therolf@la­times.com Twit­ter: @gth­erolf

The Los An­ge­les County Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices is go­ing to court in an ef­fort to block the re­turn of a so­cial worker who su­per­vised the case of a Palm­dale boy who was beaten to death.

Gre­gory Mer­ritt suc­cess­fully ap­pealed his fir­ing to L.A. County’s civil ser­vice com­mis­sion.

County de­part­ments usu­ally abide by the com­mis­sion’s find­ings, but Philip Brown­ing, the county’s child wel­fare chief, said last week that he is tak­ing the mat­ter to court af­ter de­ter­min­ing that Mer­ritt had “egre­giously” missed mul­ti­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to save 8-year-old Gabriel Fer­nan­dez.

A depart­ment spokesman said Mer­ritt would not be re­turn­ing to work as a re­sult of the county’s de­ci­sion to file a pe­ti­tion in Los An­ge­les County Su­pe­rior Court.

Since Mer­ritt’s 2013 fir­ing, he has not been paid. Depart­ment spokesman Ar­mand Mon­tiel said Mer­ritt will not draw pay un­til ju­di­cial re­view of his fir­ing is com­plete.

The boy’s mother and her boyfriend are await­ing trial on charges of cap­i­tal mur­der and a spe­cial cir­cum­stance of tor­ture. They have pleaded not guilty.

The pair are ac­cused of beat­ing Gabriel to death af­ter dous­ing him with pep­per spray, forc­ing him to eat his own vomit and lock­ing him in a cabi­net with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muf­fle his screams, ac­cord­ing to court records. De­tec­tives who searched the fam­ily’s apart­ment found a wooden club cov­ered in Gabriel’s blood.

In the months be­fore the boy was killed, sev­eral agen­cies had in­ves­ti­gated al­le­ga­tions of abuse with­out re­mov­ing him from the home. Shortly be­fore his death, Mer­ritt and so­cial worker Pa­tri­cia Cle­ment de­cided to close Gabriel’s case.

At the time, Cle­ment had “skele­ton” case notes for at least one visit, lead­ing Brown­ing to later tes­tify that he ques­tioned whether she ac­tu­ally had gone to the home. Other re­quired vis­its had not been done at all, ac- cord­ing to case records.

A key re­spon­si­bil­ity of su­per­vis­ing so­cial work­ers is to re­view case notes.

Ac­cord­ing to a brief by Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices lawyers in sup­port of Mer­ritt’s fir­ing, he knew from Cle­ment’s per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions that she some­times did not com­plete her re­quired vis­its and did not doc­u­ment them prop­erly. By her own ac­count, Cle­ment had failed to in­ter­view Gabriel pri­vately, as depart­ment guide­lines call for.

She and Mer­ritt also were aware that the boy had writ­ten a sui­cide note and had a BB pel­let em­bed­ded in his chest. Yet he was not sent for med­i­cal treat­ment or men­tal health as­sess­ment, the lawyers said.

Brown­ing fired Mer­ritt, Cle­ment and two other so­cial work­ers over the case; Mer­ritt ap­pealed.

The five-mem­ber civil ser­vice panel, which is ap­pointed by the county Board of Su­per­vi­sors, voted unan­i­mously to re­in­state him, im­pos­ing a 30-day sus­pen­sion in lieu of ter­mi­na­tion.

Aside from Gabriel’s ex­pe­ri­ence with DCFS, sher­iff ’s deputies separately in­ves­ti­gated at least four more re­ports but did not res­cue the boy or cross-re­port the com­plaints to county wel­fare agen­cies.

No deputies “even re­ceived a slap on the wrist” for their han­dling of the case, said Dan Scott, a child abuse ex­pert and for­mer sher­iff ’s of­fi­cial.

“Un­til law en­force­ment is held to the same stan­dards as DCFS, th­ese types of tragic deaths will con­tinue,” Scott said.

THE SO­CIAL worker was as­signed to Gabriel Fer­nan­dez’s case.

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