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This Is Not a Simulation

Here’s what Gregory Merritt, a supervisor at the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services knew.

He knew that eight-year old Gabriel Fernandez had a BB gun bullet lodged in his chest but that he never received medical care. He knew that the first grader had written a suicide note but his family did not access mental health services that were available to young Gabriel. He knew that Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, had been investigated DCFS six times for alleged abuse against her son.

Merritt also knew that his subordinate, Patricia Clement, the social worker charged with looking after Gabriel’s well being, had a tendency to avoid doing her job. According to testimony and Merritt’s performance review of Clement, the social worker had a habit of closing child abuse inquiries prematurely, not properly documenting her investigations, and growing easily frustrated with difficult clients.

Here’s what Clement knew.

Clement knew that Pearl Fernandez, had a history of violence, gang ties, and mental illness. She let her parents raise Gabriel until he was about seven, when she and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, suddenly demanded custody. Shortly after Gabriel went to live with his mother, calls came in that she was abusing him and his siblings. DCFS investigated the claim and found it to be true. Instead of removing the children, they offered Fernandez parenting classes.

Clement knew that one of Gabriel’s teachers called DCFS to report that the boy had bruising on his hands and face and confided in his teacher that his mother’s boyfriend had beat him with a belt until he bled.

Clement knew that Gabriel’s teacher called the hotline a month later to report that Gabriel had a “busted lip” from his mom punching him. The teacher called the hotline a third time when Gabriel came to school with stipple bruising all over his face. Gabriel said his mother shot him with a BB gun. Clement knew about the BB gun. Gabriel’s therapist called 911 after the boy gave him a suicide note, but because Gabriel gave no detailed plan of how he planned to kill himself, the Sheriff’s department did not believe his life was in danger. Clement knew about the note.

Clement investigated the abuse claims but never interviewed Gabriel alone, away from his mother and her boyfriend, which would be standard protocol in abuse cases. When probed, Gabriel recanted his claims of abuse.

Fernandez told Clement she no longer wanted services from DCFS. In April of 2013, Clement—knowing all of this and even though there was still child abuse claim that was past due for an investigation—suggested to Merritt that Gabriel’s case be closed. No more services, no more home visits, no more scrutiny from the agency. After thirty minutes of discussion, Merritt agreed. Three weeks later the paramedics arrived at Gabriel’s house after his mother called 911, claiming that the boy was not breathing.

According to the paramedics, Gabriel was not conscious. His body was broken with three rib fractures, a cracked skull, and two teeth knocked out. At the time, Fernandez and Aguirre told the paramedics that Gabriel’s injuries were self-induced. 

Gabriel died two days later.

When parents torture their children to death, the effort to manage that evil through bureaucracy seems destined to fail.

In August 2014, his siblings would testify that Gabriel suffered brutal torture and a terrible life at the hands of his caretakers. They forced him to eat cat feces and rotten food. Relatives reported that Gabriel’s mother would send him to school in girl’s clothing to punish and humiliate him. According to the L.A. Times, the night Gabriel died Fernandez and Aguirre allegedly beat “Gabriel to death after dousing him with pepper spray, forcing him to eat his own vomit and locking him in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams. . . . Detectives who searched the family’s apartment found a wooden club covered in Gabriel’s blood.” The couple has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. 

After Gabriel’s death L.A. County Board of Supervisors promised that heads would roll. Two years before, an internal review had revealed that when fourteen children died while under the watch of DCFS, no workers were fired, even when their mistakes were categorized as “egregious.” This time four social workers, including Merritt and Clement, were sacked because of the missed “red flags” in the case. Merritt was the only one who appealed the decision, claiming that Clement “misrepresented facts” to him during their discussion of Gabriel’s case and arguing that he should have only been suspended.

In April of 2015, LA County’s civil service commission found that Merritt “bears some culpability for lax supervision but not to the extent to justify his discharge after nearly 24 years of unblemished service,” as hearing officer Jeffrey Hauptman—who nevertheless drew the line at awarding Merritt back pay—wrote in his decision. In a rare move, DCFS appealed the outcome, claiming “[Merritt] was content with placing complete reliance on an employee who had clearly demonstrated was not worthy of such trust.”

Two weeks ago, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that, while awaiting his next hearing, Merritt should begin receiving his paycheck, bringing him one step closer to getting his job back. The court’s decision is not yet public, so the logic behind this conclusion remains murky.

What responsibilities do government workers have to beat back the darkness unleashed on children like Gabriel? When parents torture their children to death, and we are confronted with something that most closely resembles “evil,” the effort to manage that evil through bureaucracy seems destined to fail.

“Children are going to die,” a Riverside county child services worker once told me while I was reporting on a child murder case. “You can have the best social workers in the field, and still, some parents will find a way to kill their kids.” That insanely bleak statement may be one that social workers like Clement—those who are not the best in the field, those who close cases instead of resolving them, those who simulate results—have accepted as truth.

Results simulation is the greatest problem that can plague a bureaucracy because it goes unnoticed by the system. In schools you see it in high-stakes standardized testing, where teachers coach to the test, teaching the children a proxy for learning. You see it police precincts like Detroit, where the homicide numbers are routinely deflated through obfuscation while the violent crime rate stays sky high. You see it, most tragically, in structures like DCFS, where the number of foster children in the system is suppressed by placing kids with dangerous, unfit parents under the mandate of reunification. 

My former crime policy professor Mark Kleiman explains the simulation phenomenon like this: any incentive to create a result also creates an incentive to simulate the same result. “Or, as W.C. Fields put it in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man,” Kleiman writes, “‘If a thing is worth winning, it’s worth cheating for.’” For social workers, the thing worth winning—or keeping—is a well-paid government job with iron-clad job security. 

“Any proposal for an incentive system without explicit consideration of the simulation problem and how to deal with it should be presumed non-serious,” Kleiman writes. “If it’s true that management without accountability is just cheerleading, it’s also true that creating big incentives without preventing results-simulation is just asking to be cheated.”

To be clear, social work, particularly in a county as huge as Los Angeles, is brutalizing, so it’s no surprise that when a system allows self-reporting and self-accountability, the metrics become more important than the actual results. This issue will not be resolved by just creating more incentives for workers to do their job (though, of course, more pay and lighter workloads wouldn’t hurt); there needs to be a better metric in place, one that can’t be gamed or fudged. 

There is of course, a very big, bright, shining incentive to social work: if done with tenacity, it saves children from horrible demise. But if that somehow isn’t enough, then the caseworker from Riverside is right: kids are going to die.