Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Recently, Netflix released a six-part documentary called, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” in which the tragic death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez is depicted. The documentary focuses on the abuse that led to his death during his time with his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. On May 22, 2013, in Palmdale, California “Paramedics found Gabriel naked and not breathing, with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin”.**** Two days later, Gabriel passed away at the hospital. All of these signs signaled that his death hadn’t been an in-the-moment accident, but rather a premeditated act done with immense cruelty.
Gabriel’s death led officials to launch an investigation to uncover the reasons why the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) left him in the care of his mother after various abuse allegations had been made. The investigation exposed how the child welfare system had consistently let Gabriel down.
From the beginning, it was clear that Pearl didn’t want anything to do with her son. Due to the fact that she gave Gabriel up three days after birth to her brother, Michael Lemos Carranza, and his partner, David Martinez. “They were his primary carers from 2005 to 2009 when he was taken into the care of his grandparents, Robert and Sandra Fernandez. Gabriel was forcibly removed from his grandparents as Fernandez wanted her son back – reportedly so she could claim welfare from him”.** Although Gabriel’s grandmother had made allegations that Pearl was an abuser and an unfit mother, they were all in vain. In October of 2012, Gabriel was forced to move in with his mother for the first time.
During the 8 months that Gabriel spent with his mother and Isauro Aguirre, he was brutally tortured in unimaginable ways. He was beaten regularly, forced to eat soiled cat litter, and kept in a locked cupboard, gagged and tied, for hours a day without access to the bathroom.
It’s important to mention that various calls were made to officials by worried family members. “In fact, law enforcement often (there were multiple house calls) took Pearl Fernandez’s word that everything was fine, and never even asked to see Gabriel. And when they did, according to family members, they threatened Gabriel, and told him that if he kept lying about his bruises, that he’d be the one to go to jail”.*** Additionally, his teacher had made repeated calls to social workers regarding bruises and other marks that could be seen on Gabriel’s body. There were so many signs that just kept being ignored.
After his death, investigators found that all of his clothes had been put in a plastic bag underneath the sink of the bathroom. Meanwhile, a couple of dresses had been found inside the closet of Gabriel’s room. Throughout the investigation and with the testimony of Gabriel’s brother and sister it was uncovered that he was forced to dress as a girl and called gay by his mom and Isauro.*** This led officials to believe that his death was a case of homophobia.
In the Netflix documentary, you can see how the investigator originally had red stickers to mark blood spatter around the apartment. “However, there was so much blood, that she soon ran out of the color and had to switch to yellow stickers”.*** Gabriel Fernandez went through severe trauma and abuse. He had his teeth knocked out with a baseball bat by his mother’s partner. Also, numerous cigarette burns were found all across his body. Furthermore, the series shows his siblings' testimonies in which they both explain how Isauro would hold Gabriel up by the neck against a wall and beat him until he was unconscious. His injuries were so extensive that the autopsy lasted two days - which is far longer than usual. As if this weren’t enough, the report showed that his thymus gland - which is responsible for the early development of the immune system - was deteriorating and weighed 10 grams when then the normal weight is 100 grams.*** According to the coroner, it was a result of the stress that Gabriel was undergoing.
Even so, Gabriel still demonstrated and showed love to his mother. The series showed how just days before his murder, he had written his mother a Mother’s Day card with all of the things he loved about her.
I encourage you to watch the documentary series if you haven’t already. Although it is quite graphic, explicit, and hard to watch it sheds light on problems within the system. It is also interesting to watch the step by step trial process of Isauro Aguirre. In the end, Isauro was convicted of first-degree murder, under the special circumstance of intentional murder by the infliction of torture. As a result, he was sentenced to death. His death date is yet to be announced.
Since Pearl pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, she avoided the trial process. Her defense team said that given her low IQ, capital punishment wasn’t appropriate for her; therefore, she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.**** On the other hand, the four social workers - Stefanie Rodriguez, Patricia Clement, Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt - in charge of Gabriel’s case received no punishment at the end of their trial.
As a person who is planning on becoming a social worker, I believe that the system is broken, which is why we need more social workers to fix it. Social workers are often overworked and have an overload of cases making it much more difficult to provide a child the individualized attention he/she needs.
In the years after Gabriel’s death, reforms have been done on LA’s child welfare system. Some of which include hiring more social workers, adding a cap on the number of caseloads social workers have, and creating larger two-year mentorship programs for new social workers.* Although much bigger changes and reforms need to be put into place, I believe that this is a step in the right direction.
Gabriel Fernandez was a young charismatic boy who deserved to know what love was. He deserved a warm meal and a bed to sleep on. No child deserves to suffer as this young boy did. Let’s bring justice to Gabriel and fix the system so that no other child goes through this pain. I hope that we all take this as a lesson to do better. May Gabriel rest in peace and let’s remember him by his beautiful smile.
*Green, D. (2020, March 5). Lasting Reform of LA's Child Welfare System is How We Win Justice for Gabriel Fernandez. Retrieved from https://www.seiu721.org/2020/03/lasting-reform-of-las-child-welfare-system-is-how-we-win-justice-for-gabriel-fernandez.php
**Tahir, T. (2020, March 4). Gabriel Fernandez tied up in 'torture box' by mum & partner before his murder. Retrieved from https://www.the-sun.com/news/480080/gabriel-fernandez-tied-up-and-gagged-inside-torture-box-by-mom-and-her-partner-before-his-murder-netflix-doc-reveals/
***Verhoeven, B. (2020, April 9). 'Trials of Gabriel Fernandez': 9 Most Shocking Details About the Murder at Heart of Netflix Documentary. Retrieved from https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/trials-gabriel-fernandez-9-most-011151983.html
****Villarreal, Y., & Brennan, M. (2020, February 26). Netflix's 'The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez' as it unfolded: Read our coverage. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2020-02-26/netflix-the-trials-of-gabriel-fernandez-docuseries-coverage