There are few episodes as tragic as the death of little 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend in Lancaster in 2013.
The death of this innocent child is tragic on so many levels. Each one, if properly addressed, would have saved his life.
Deaths of local children continue unabated, as with 4-year-old Noah Cuarto, allegedly strangled by his parents in July in Palmdale. Assembly Bill 1450, recently proposed by our state Assemblyman Tom Lackey and our state Sen. Scott Wilk, falls short of any substantial or immediate remedy.
AB1450 would allow 10 years for state, county, and law enforcement agencies to share information about suspected child abuse.
“Cross-reporting among law enforcement agencies, county welfare departments, and county district attorney’s offices is mandated in cases involving allegations of child abuse and neglect immediately or as soon as practically possible by telephone and by written report within 36 hours…”
Are you kidding me? We will wait 10 years to close the window of danger? This data should be reported and shared now by giving access to agencies to the state’s consolidated database.
Make a phone call to whom? The proposed bill never describes to whom that “phone call” is made.
The bill seeks three noble goals. It would require agencies who need to share vital information about child abuse to share information; it asks the state to pay for this inter-county and inter-agency sharing, the cost at this point is unknown; and it calls attention to children under the care of county agencies who continue to be murdered by the ones who are supposed to protect them.
As an investigator, I was honored to support the grandparents of Gabriel Fernandez in their quest for justice and reform. For over a year my firm and I worked on Gabriel’s case. Allow me to share some stunning findings that should be considered when drafting legislation in honor of Gabriel.
1: Social workers estimate that more than 95% of child abuse allegations are “revenge” reports. These reports are investigated although completely untrue. Those making false reports are not prosecuted or deterred in any way, yet divert our talented social workers from attending to real issues.
2: Gabriel’s mother, who had previously lived in Texas, had her other children taken away due to her abuse. State records are kept separately, so California could but rarely, if ever, checks abuse records in other states.
3: Gabriel’s grandparents had physical custody and for most of Gabriel’s life acted as his guardians, as his mother had abandoned him. However, because the court had not formally given legal custody to the grandparents, when Gabriel’s mother showed up at their door with sheriff’s deputies, they were forced to surrender him to the mother, who they knew was unfit, without a hearing.
4: The court typically favors a parent to care for a child despite abuse and even torture. Courts view biological parental care as the preferred way to care for children.
5: Gabriel’s schoolteacher and others filed more than 60 allegations of abuse over a period of several months. Only six claims were formally investigated and none in a timely manner as required by law (within five hours).
6: When Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) social workers went to Gabriel’s home, the mother claimed he was not there, although he was hidden away upstairs. DCFS failed to follow up to immediately locate and interview him as required.
7: The time or two Gabriel was present when the DCFS investigated abuse, Gabriel’s mother was present and Gabriel was not interviewed in a separate area. Gabriel therefore was compelled not answer questions truthfully.
8: There are no audits by an independent agency regarding social worker procedure when a cluster of abuse reports goes unresolved.
Examining AB1450, we find that none of the eight issues depicted above are addressed.
Although Gabriel’s name is attached to the legislation, not only is it six years too late, but also apparently no actions to be taken by this bill have anything to do with his case.
We should make reporting a false abuse claim a felony to be prosecuted, allow for a hearing before surrender of a child by a returning parent, and require an outside agency review of protocols to ensure they are followed. DCFS should be required to check the records of other states as routine and interagency sharing of information should be required in one year.
Let’s save lives eight ways, instead of not at all.
Jonathan Kraut directs a private investigations firm, is the CFO private security firm, is the COO of an Acting Conservatory, a published author, and Democratic Party activist. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or of other organizations.