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Four California social services agency workers have been fired for their involvement in the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who, authorities allege, was beaten and killed by his mother and her boyfriend.
And three others, according to County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, were disciplined.
But activists contend there needs to be a lot more cleanup done at Child Protective Services, the agency that involves itself in the lives of children and families.
Authorities report Fernandez sustained a fractured skull, his ribs were broken, his skin was burned by cigarettes and BB pellets were lodged in his chest and his groin. His death was reported in May and the subsequent criminal case now is getting under way.
In an interview with WND, leaders of parents rights groups said they were sad, but not very surprised.
After WND reported on the effort of California Republican gubernatorial candidate Assemblyman Tim Donnelly to audit CPS for abuses of power and confiscations without justification, those with power began taking steps to correct the problem.
Citizens who felt hurt by the system or those who were just appalled at what they learned about CPS began to form parents rights groups and lobby their legislature. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly agreed to lead the reform initiatives, and he began with a bill to audit CPS.
Much attention came to these issues when Baby Samuel Nikolayev was removed by police from his mother’s arms because his parents sought to obtain a second medical opinion about a health matter he had.
Democrat Mike Gatto, from Los Angeles, said that the state agency was too lax (citing the Gabriel Fernandez case), and Republican Tim Donnelly said they are, in some cases, too aggressive and “overzealous.”
Legislators agreed that there are instances within the system of overly aggressive and random confiscation of children (such as the Nikolayev case), and yet there are cases like Gabriel’s where a child dies for being lost in the process.
Ed Howard is senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. He said that “behind the concerns of assembly members is a concern about whether CPS is using its extraordinary powers (that of removing children from their families, and that of saving a child from abuse and death) to take children in a manner that is wise, accountable, and not arbitrary.”
Citizens gathered at the state capitol to support Donnelly’s reform measures in May and June. Many wore images on T-shirts of children harmed, taken or otherwise victimized by the current system. Among them were Deanna Fogarty, whose two daughters were taken from her home, and Ruby Dillon, whose daughter was also removed.
California Auditor Elaine Howle is to review the policies and procedures that CPS agencies use to remove a child from a home. Some say that is a start, but wonder how many children and families will be hurt while they wait. Only three counties have been chosen to be audited, and some are asking for more to be done in counties that aren’t included.
Anna Nikolayev is one of those who does not trust the system.
Crying, she said, “You can’t break into my house and take my child. They ripped my child out of my arms.”
She told WND that she still worries CPS workers will find other reasons to take her child, or other children wrongly.
Donnelly's CPS audit bill passed a bi-partisan committee in the California legislature unanimously. Since then, Baby Sammy, who was taken from his family because they sought a second opinion on medical advice, was reunited with his family. Baby Sammy is happy and healthy today, but the family's emotional scars remain.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, a Democrat from Long Beach, contends that the Nikolayev case was not only mishandled by CPS, but also by the police, and hospital employees who called the police in the first place.
Dr. Ruby Dillon, mother of a child taken and placed with an alleged known sex offender, told WND in early July that she saw progress in her case, as well.
Another mother turned activist because her daughters were taken from her home, Deanna Fogarty, told WND that she was confident change would come. Both were concerned about time, because they believed the financial incentives were too tempting for CPS to be trusted to behave ethically.
But then Gabriel's death was reported, and it became evident that changes aren't happening fast enough.
Antonovich, the county supervisor who called for an investigation after learning of the death of Gabriel, said, "It is vital that those working in the child protection system remain vigilant to ensure the safety and well-being of those in the county's care."
Donnelly's audit plan is now in the hands of California Auditor Elaine Howle, but little is known about any progress in her investigation.
WND's calls requesting comment were not immediately returned.
In the county CPS agency where Gabriel Fernandez died, all of the employees involved in the case were put on desk duty when he died in May. Reportedly, Gabriel's mother, Pearl Fernandez, was in the home at the time of the alleged murder, and did nothing to defend the little boy.
Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend both were charged in the case.
About a month after the death of Gabriel, the board of supervisors in his county decided to create a "blue ribbon commission" to look into how DCFS evaluates reports of abuse, but they have not met yet.
Deanna Fogarty told WND that she thinks the problem runs much deeper than oversight.
"I would submit that the massive funding tied to the removal of a child has caused Child Protective Services to morph into a mechanism for financial gain. Money has fundamentally shifted this agency's objective from one of protector to that of the perpetrator and with it the tendency for this agency to abuse its power with regularity. Legislative reform and accountability is vital when it comes to an agency endowed with so much power and responsibility."
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) is the federal law that prompts most state and local legislation and funding for child protective services.
CAPTA was a federal mandate enacted in 1988. It directed that Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families provide grants to communities for child abuse prevention programs. It mandated that states implement child abuse laws on their own, in order to qualify for massive funding and federal grants that will match and reward those on the state level.
This experimental federal mandate, backed by significant funding, was intended to keep more families together. However, the National Coalition for Child Protection (NCCPR) reports that the results of CAPTA are quite different than the original intention. NCCPR says that CAPTA, in fact, disrupted more families, and has made life for children in this experimental government program much, much worse.
NCCPR says that the failings of today's child welfare system "can be summed up by the very rationalization often used to justify the way it works today, an approach that can be boiled down to 'take the child and run.'"
Donnelly wants to address the financial incentive concerns of parents like Deanna Fogarty.
"While firing the negligent social workers (at LA DCFS) who ignored young Gabriel's cries for help will not bring him back, it is a good first step in bringing some accountability to a government agency that has become abusive of instead of protecting children," he said.
Donnelly said he isn't finished yet.
"I will be pushing a package of reforms to scale back their mission from re-educating every parent they can trap in their perverse web of funding incentives, to refocusing their efforts on job No. 1: identifying kids in imminent danger of criminal abuse and neglect, and then removing them to a safe place," he said. "I am grateful to all those who've stepped up to help by sharing their stories and reform ideas."
Dr. Ruby Dillon has taken leave from her dental practice to fight to get her daughter, Alexis, back from the alleged known child molester who has had her since she was taken from her mother more than 18 months ago.
In a story WND published in June, Dillon said, "It's the most helpless feeling in the world when this happens to you. It feels like there is no hope left. I have not seen my daughter since December … she doesn't even look like the same child any more. There is nothing in her eyes. She looks hopeless, and there is just nothing I can do…"
This week, she told WND that "there should be no absolute immunity for any social worker whose actions rise to the level of gross negligence or willful misconduct. They should be criminally prosecuted for aiding and abetting the commission of child abuse."