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The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez - A Social Worker Responds

Tristan Johnson examines the conversation Social Work feels uncomfortable having.

As a Social Worker with nearly 20 years’ experience of working in Social Care I sat alone in front of my television to watch the harrowing new 6 part Netflix series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. For those of you who do not know, Gabriel Fernandez was an 8-year-old boy from California, whose life was taken in the cruellest of ways – by the people who should have loved him.

Gabriel was a smiling little boy who was failed. Failed by his mother, failed by the Police, failed by Social Services and failed by society. Sadly he is not alone. That Netflix have been able to turn this young child’s brief life into a medium which can be consumed is a testament to the programme makers. The plot is grotesque, the characters villainous, the ending heartbreaking.

Is the 21st century media savy planet really ready to listen to what really happens behind closed doors? I recently joined an online group who’s existence is to rally against the work Social Services do. I opened my mind to joining this group, yet hesitant. I felt like Ron Stallworth joining the Klan. I actually wanted to know more about what people were feeling. What I found was that people were angry. With Social Services, with other people in their lives and perhaps with themselves. Angry with the situation.

I couldn’t help but feel for the people who feel let down by Social Workers. They forget that Social Workers are humans too. Yet these people, often people who had their children taken away, are taking to public online forums because they feel powerless. Numerous posts about how Social Services will make up ‘lies to take your children away’. It made me consider what it must really feel like to be those parents. The unrepresented side of that narrative must be the question of why those children were taken away. But the real issue is, yes, Social Workers do get it wrong and yes, some lie.

Watching the television, the actions of the Social Workers involved in Gabriel Fernandez brief life call into question culpability, defensive practice and how human’s make mistakes. It was interesting to consider why the Police were not held accountable for failing to safeguard Gabriel, yet 4 Social Workers charges were filed against 4 social workers for Child Abuse and Falsifying records.

I am going to state the obvious – Gabriel Fernandez is one of thousands of children brutally abused. But having a reference point allows for comment. In my years of being a Social Worker I specialised in working with adults with severe and enduring mental disorder, however there is always that one moment that haunts you.

Years ago I was triaging referrals into a team that I worked in when I read it. It was the case of a man referred to the team due to increased homicidal fantasy in which he stated he was going to kill his 6 year-old foster sibling and had drawn explicit pictures of how he intended to do this. He had been referred due to concerns about his mental health. In the referral it was apparent that he had sexually assaulted a minor who was living in the family home. The man’s parents were Foster parents to 4 children who were siblings. The Police had interviewed the man, and following referral to the Crown Prosecution Service, felt there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

The Police referred the matter to the local Social Services department. However, the children were placed from an out of area Local Authority and when the Police informed local services, the action was logged as ‘for information’ as they did not know the children.

The man returned from the Police station, back to the family home, back into the house with the child he had sexually abused.

I remember the phone call to the children’s Social Work team. I spoke to their team manager who was blissfully unaware of any of what I told her. She noted that the children’s Social Worker was on holiday that day, due to return the following day.

At 9am the following morning I got a call to attend a hastily arranged strategy meeting. Upon arrival, there were about 15 professionals from various agencies involved with the children and Foster parents in the room. I was sat next to the children’s Social Worker.

As the Chair of the meeting relayed the information she and others in the room started sobbing. It emerged that she had been aware of the abuse, and that the Police had been involved but that Social Services had done nothing to act. The Social Work team tried to give various excuses as to why no action had been taken. "You were on annual leave, and I was on training that day". Yes, I thought - but he wants to murder the boy to shut him up.

The Foster agency noted that removing the children should be considered carefully because ‘it had been difficult to place all 4 together’ and that ‘it’s likely the Foster family will not remove their own son from the house’.

I sat there incredulous. I wanted to scream ‘Oh, well that makes sexual abusing someone OK?’

After 6 hours in the meeting, the Chair went around the professionals in the room. In some respects I felt like I should not be there- I was a Social Worker, specialising in Adults Mental Health in a room full of professionals who work with Children. They work in this specialism, they should know!

As I sat looking at the people in the room, it was clear to me that their threshold was skewed. It appeared that each had a stake in those children’s lives and that the moral compass was off kilter.

I was the ONLY person who said that in my opinion if there was no way of ensuring that those children could remain safe, then they should be removed from that placement. I stayed true to our profession and my responsibility within it.

Child Protection is everyone’s responsibility.

2 months later I had a difficult encounter with the Foster family. They informed me that ‘I had cost them a lot of money’ due to my actions as they had not Fostered any more children. It made me realise that even the Foster parents would have turned a blind eye to sexual abuse to maintain the status quo and ergo their income.

For those of you still reading this article, the point is this. The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez should show us all, Social Workers, parents, humans, that the world can be the cruelest of places. It can not be used to prove convincingly that either side is right. Just that one eight year old boy was failed, by both his parents AND his Social Workers.

When you next find yourself in a position where your sixth sense is telling you something is not right, follow it.



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