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Department of Children and Family Services probed by committee

August 1, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Los Angeles County is looking at how to reform the child welfare system after an 8-year-old boy was overlooked in the system and ended up killed.

A group of experts called the Blue Ribbon Coalition met for the first time on Thursday at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. The committee's goal is to look into system-wide failures within the Department of Children and Family Services and figure out how to improve child welfare in the county.

The commission is made up of a panel of experts, including a retired detective, and academics, and chaired by former director of the Department of Children and Family Services David Sanders.

"There's clearly an interest in making change. That interest starts with the board. I think clearly the commission members feel that same sense, but the public is demanding that," said Sanders.

They'll be looking at systemic flaws in child safety in agencies throughout the county, encompassing not just social workers, but schools, law enforcement and mental health services.

"It is a critically important intervention," said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

This effort is in response to the death of Gabriel Fernandez, who was tortured and fatally beaten allegedly by his mother's boyfriend, 32-year-old Isauro Aguirre. Investigators say the boy's mother, 29-year-old Pearl Fernandez, watched it all happen back in May and did nothing about it.

Both Pearl Fernandez and Aguirre have been charged with capital murder. Also, three Department of Children and Family Services employees were reprimanded, and four others were terminated, because they had several opportunities to remove the boy from his abusive home but did not.

Pearl Fernandez had been investigated six times for alleged abuse after family and friends complained to DCFS. The boy even wrote a suicide note, yet nothing was done.

Bill Gay, who worked for DCFS for more than three decades, testified that recommendations made 20 years ago to keep kids safe were never implemented.

"I've known too many kids that die. It breaks my heart every time I hear it, but at least they're at peace," said Gay. "How about the kids that are in care now that are not at peace?"

Vivian Miranda, a parent, also testified, saying her children are in danger and that her reports to DCFS have been ignored for years. But now she feels encouraged.

"I feel like there's a little hope for me and my children and my family, and I just feel I'm in a safe place here," said Miranda.

DCFS Director Philip Browning says many steps are being taken to make things right in the department and to prevent tragedies like Fernandez's death from happening again.

"We're reinforcing with staff the need to ensure that they communicate, that they take children to physicians or medical hubs if there's a reason; that they listen to the child and listen to the parent if there is a cry out," said Browning.

Earlier this week DCFS fired two social workers and two supervisors who handled Fernandez's case. It is also adopting a new training program and giving social workers better tools and technology like iPhones and computer systems in the field.

The four terminated employees include two social workers and two supervisors. They were given letters of intent to discharge on Tuesday. They will have an opportunity to appeal the decision in two weeks at a hearing.


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