On February 26, Netflix released a heartbreaking series, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. Directed by Ben Knappenberger, the series centers on the horrific death of an eight-year-old boy in the Antelope Value of California on May 24, 2013. Gabriel Fernandez died after eight months of torture by his mother and her boyfriend. Despite repeated reports to the child abuse hotline and the Sheriff’s Office, multiple investigations, and even an open family services case, there was no rescue for Gabriel. It was only after his death that the story of his last eight months and the inexplicable failure of the police and social services were revealed.
I wrote about Gabriel’s story in November 2018 in a post entitled, Why No One Saved Gabriel Fernandez. But The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez uses the power of video to bring the case alive in a way that is difficult to do in writing. The unusually calm voice of a mother tells a 911 operator her son is not breathing. An ambulance flies through the late-night streets, carrying an eight-year-old who had been resuscitated by the EMT’s and again in the ambulance and will stop breathing twice more in the ER. A little boy with injuries to almost every part of his small body, which will, in spite of all the heroic efforts by doctors and nurses to save him, finally shut down.
So begins The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. In six excruciating but riveting episodes, The Trials tells the story of the Los Angeles Times investigation into Gabriel’s life and death, the trials of his murderers, and the unsuccessful attempt to hold accountable those professionals who failed him. Times reporter Garrett Therolf recounts learning of the eight-year-old’s death in a crime blog and wondering about the circumstances, being faced with self-protective wall secrecy and stonewalling imposed by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and hearing from a whistleblower who risked his job to reveal the truth. The prosecutor wheels into court the shockingly small cabinet where Gabriel spent his nights bound and gagged. Isaurro Aguirre sits impassive as a parade of witnesses describe the sweetness of Gabriel and the unspeakable nature of his injuries. Gabriel’s teacher fights back tears as she tells how she contacted CPS every time Gabriel arrived in school with increasingly bizarre and severe injuries. The partner of Gabriel’s uncle tells of the three-day-old infant they took home from the hospital because his mother did not want him, his growth into a joyful four-year-old, who was then raised by his grandparents for the next four years until he was returned to his mother for the welfare money. A bewildered social worker sheds tears of fear for her own future, claiming she had no idea anything was wrong in Gabriel’s home.
I identified two major systemic issues that could have been behind DCFS’ failure to rescue Gabriel. One of these issues–the focus on family preservation at all costs–was addressed in the documentary. The other issue–that of resources–was not. As Garrett Therolf put it in a brilliant article in The Atlantic, child welfare requires a balancing act between child safety and family preservation. Finding this difficult balance requires a highly trained workforce with the resources to carry out a thorough investigation in every case.” Overworked, undertrained, and underpaid social workers simply cannot do it.
Gabriel’s case was far from unique, as the documentary made clear. Two weeks after Isaurro Aguirre was sentenced to death for his murder of Gabriel, and Pearl Hernandez was sentenced to life without parole after taking a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, another little boy was dead of abuse in the Antelope Valley. Ten-year-old Anthony Avilas was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend. His torture and abuse appeared to be motivated at least in part by homophobia, as in Gabriel’s case. And there was a long history of interactions with authorities with no help forthcoming for Anthony. Soon enough news arrived that a four year old named Noah Cuatro had died under similar circumstances in the Antelope Valley. Around California, over 150 children who were known to DCFS have died of abuse or neglect since Gabriel died, as reported in the documentary.
But this is not a California story alone. These cases happen all over the country. The Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities estimated that a third to a half of the child maltreatment fatalities around the country involved families known to Child Protective Services. I write have written about some of these children whose cases made it to the mass media: Zymere Perkins in New York City,;Matthew Tirado in Connecticut; Adrian Jones and Evan Brewer in Kansas; the six Hart children in Minnesota, Oregon and Washington; Jordan Belliveau in Florida; and most recently Thomas Valva in New York. All were the subject of reports and investigations, and sometimes service cases, but all were allowed to die at the hands of murderous caretakers.
The power of video to bring about public awareness is truly awe-inspiring. Normally my posts are read mainly by academics, child advocates, and child welfare professionals. On February 27, I started to notice some unusual traffic on my blog. Between February 27 and the early morning of March, my posts on Gabriel, Anthony, Noah and other children failed by the state had been viewed over 2000 times. If only the public could keep up this level of interest –perhaps even follow my blog–and insist on adequate funding and an end to the wall of secrecy around child welfare services, we might be able to save the next Gabriel Fernandez.