The Netflix documentary, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” is the tragic story about catastrophic failures of the California child welfare system that led to the torture, abuse and death of an 8-year-old boy at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend.
The events might have unfolded 3,000 miles away. But they draw striking similarities to events that continue to happen in Florida and around the nation.
In young Gabriel’s case, signs of his physical abuse were clear enough that school teachers, neighbors, and others called the police and social service agencies numerous times. And each time, the authorities entrusted to protect him found an excuse to look the other way. Police even accused the boy of faking the abuse and released him to his mother.
While attorneys for his grandparents were able to settle a civil case against the California Department of Child Welfare for $2.4 million, no agency was officially held accountable.
This case is hauntingly familiar to those who have fought for Florida’s at-risk children. Consider Ahziya Osceola, 3, who was repeatedly beaten by his step-mother on multiple occasions, while child welfare and law enforcement agencies were supposed to have been watching, and was ultimately beaten to death and stuffed in a box. Or, Nina Navarro, 11, who was removed from her family by DCF based upon claims of abuse and neglect only to be lured away from a crowded Broward County foster home and gang-raped.
Over the first six months of her life, M.N. was repeatedly beaten. Welfare agencies, law enforcement and even several health care providers missed classic signs and healing fractures leading a tragic yet preventable death after she suffered a fatal skull fracture. Before that, Jace Manning, a Coral Springs infant whose grandmother begged authorities to remove him from his family, suffered injuries and brain damage when the same authorities failed to act. Almost five years after his attack, the authorities settled a civil lawsuit for $1.575 million.
While the Netflix story has captured national attention, sadly, these abuses continue to occur in communities across the country. In fact, the documentary closes with the revelation that months after Gabriel’s highly publicized death, another child in his neighborhood died as a result of neglect and abuse, which, similarly, had been reported to the same authorities.
Protective service agencies, often privately contracted in the state of Florida, along with investigative agencies and law enforcement, collectively tasked with providing quality child safety services and protecting our most vulnerable citizens, are rarely held criminally accountable – and frequently waste time and money aggressively fighting civil claims.
Days before he was murdered, Gabriel wrote a card to his mother professing his love for her and how he wanted to be a good boy. Instead, he became a national statistic – and his memory the starring role in a profound Netflix documentary.