"Close the case." A family services caseworker in Los Angeles County named Pat Clement wrote that recommendation on the file of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in March of 2013 after a home visit. Her supervisor went along, and two months later, Gabriel was dead—the result of brutal beatings and torture by his mother and her boyfriend. If the caseworkers "had dug deeper, or simply paid closer attention to what they already knew, they might have uncovered the family’s secret: that Gabriel spent days and nights with a sock in his mouth, shoelaces knotted around his hands, a bandanna shrouding his face, handcuffs locking his ankles, trapped inside a cabinet in his mother’s bedroom," writes Garrett Therolf in the Atlantic. Clement and three others now face prison in a rare case: caseworkers being held accountable for failing to stop the fatal abuse of a child.
The story digs into the disturbing details of Gabriel's file, starting with his teacher's regular phone calls to the family services department. They weren't ignored: A young caseworker named Stefanie Rodriguez made repeated visits to the family home. In fact, at one point, Gabriel seemed reluctant to keep confessing to his teacher, because, “When I tell you, and that lady comes, then I get hurt worse.” Therolf follows the case as it moves through the system, culminating with three home visits by Clement (the only one of the main players in the story who declines to be interviewed) and her conclusion that Gabriel was in no danger. It was all a "staggering failure" of the system, concludes Therolf, noting that during the seven months Gabriel was under supervision, his horrific physical abuse only increased. The four former employees go on trial later this year. Read the full story. (Read more child abuse stories.)