The recently-released, Netflix documentary “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” has made headlines for chronicling the abuse, torture and eventual death of an 8-year-old California boy, Gabriel Fernandez, at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend in 2013.
The six-part documentary series, which was released Feb. 26, highlighted the abuse Gabriel endured over the eight months before his murder, including horrific beatings, being shot with a BB gun, being forced to eat cat litter and being locked in a small cupboard for hours in his Palmdale home.
The documentary details the court proceedings of Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, for his murder. Fernandez ended up pleading guilty to first-degree murder in a plea deal that saw her sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, while Aguirre was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. He remains on death row at San Quentin Prison in California.
On numerous occasions before his death, Gabriel’s teacher reported to the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) that she thought he was being abused, but he was never medically examined, nor removed from his mother's custody, according to prosecutors on the case.
Fueled by reporting from former Los Angeles Times reporter Garret Therolf, who covered the case extensively at the time, the documentary questions the alleged negligence of the DCFS and the L.A. County sheriff’s office, which visited Gabriel’s home several times before he died.
Four people, two socials workers and two supervisors who worked for the DCFS were eventually each charged with one felony count of child abuse and one felony count of falsifying public records in 2016.
Below are the answers to five questions that come out of coverage of the case.
How did the documentary come about?
Therolf, who is a producer on the documentary, said he realized while he was covering the court proceedings of Aguirre and Hernandez that it would be wise to get some of it on tape. So, he recruited Brian Knappenberger, who became an executive producer on the documentary, to help, Salon reported.
Knappenberger, who is a documentarian, started meeting with people who were central to telling Gabriel's story. Therolf, who is now a reporter for UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program, told Salon that he initially noticed that kids were dying at the hands of their guardians in the county at an alarming rate.
As the pair covered the trial, Knappenberger said more questions emerged. When DCFS employees were charged, it added another layer.
"The questions about what happened to Gabriel just kept getting deeper and deeper and deeper," Knappenberger told Salon.
Where does the case against the four employees from DCFS stand?
Social workers Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement, and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were charged in connection with the case in 2016. They all faced 10 years in prison.
In 2020, however, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ordered that all the criminal charges be dismissed.
“We conclude that the petitioners never had the requisite duty to control the abusers and did not have care or custody of Gabriel for purposes of Penal Code section 273a, subdivision (a). We further conclude that the petitioners were not officers within the meaning of Government Code section 6200,'' wrote Justice Francis Rothschild.
"There is, therefore, no probable cause to hold them on charges of violating those laws and the trial court should have granted the motions to dismiss,” he added.
How did the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services respond to the documentary?
The department released a statement to the WRAP after the docuseries, saying that what happened to Gabriel was “horrific and inhumane.” The department highlighted the changes it has made since Gabriel's death, including hiring more than 3,500 new social workers since 2013 and implementing a five-to-one ratio of supervisors to social workers.
“It should never take the death of a child to address weaknesses and make investments in improvements for child protection; it is in his memory and in pursuit of the safety of Los Angeles County’s two million children that we have reformed how child protection work is done,” the statement said. “This new era of reform began immediately following Gabriel’s death and continues on today with Director Bobby D. Cagle who joined the Department in December 2018.”
DCFS also noted that they aided the documentary’s producers by providing a ride-along with a social worker in Palmdale, and planning an interview with the department’s Division Chief Ed Fithyan.
They also said they answered questions providing information for the documentary.
Check out their full statement here.
Where is Jon Hatami, who was prosecutor on the case?
District Attorney Jon Hatami's account of the case was a focal point of the documentary and he was deeply invested in getting justice for Gabriel. While he said he had never suffered abuse to the level Gabriel had, he did say in the documentary that his dad was abusive to him growing up.
“I had kind of a complicated childhood situation. My dad had really bad anger problems, and he would get really mad. He was abusive at times,” Hatami said.
His father denies ever being abusive toward Hatami.
Hatami worked specifically trying cases of child abuse and child sexual abuse between 2011 and 2016, and then he became a senior trial attorney in the Complex Child Abuse section in 2016.
Hatami, who lives in Santa Clarita, has also worked on legislation Senate Bill 756, which helps survivors of child abuse earn more restitution.
Could there be a Season 2 for the docuseries?
Knappenberger says yes. He told Entertainment Weekly there is still more to the case that hasn’t been explored. For example, neither Aguirre or Fernandez spoke in the documentary and he had reached out to them to participate with no response.
He hopes that the release of the documentary may change things.
"Yes, I still want to hear from them," Knappenberger said. "It's not like we created this television series and now we're on to the next thing, moving on with our lives. This is something that is lodged in the heart of everybody that worked on it.
"Part of it is a mystery. Like, who are these people? How did this happen? Why did this boy's life get taken like this? There are still so many unanswered questions. So if they wanted to talk to me, I would absolutely talk to them on the record."