The Heartbreaking Story Behind Netflix’s Documentary Collection The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez

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The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is a radical and heartbreaking examination of the systemic forces that permit baby abuse to flourish undetected in the USA. On the heart of the sequence is Gabriel Fernandez, an eight-year-old boy who died in Might 2013 after being severely abused and tortured by his mom and her boyfriend, each of whom had been arrested and convicted for his loss of life. By interviews with members of Gabriel’s household, courtroom testimony, and perception from specialists on psychology and household relationships, documentarian Brian Knappenberger makes an attempt to reply some key questions: What, precisely, occurred to Gabriel, and why didn’t anybody step in to save lots of him?

“Nobody listened to Gabriel when he was alive,” Knappenberger tells TIME. “A lot of people failed him, and there’s a lot of reasons that this happened. But when you get to the end, it’s about: how do you want to treat kids?”

Right here’s what to know in regards to the true story behind the sequence, out on Netflix on Feb. 26.

Who was Gabriel Fernandez?

By all accounts, primarily based on interviews within the sequence and information experiences following his loss of life, Gabriel was — like most children — a candy baby who favored to be useful and sought the love of his household. Previous to shifting in along with his mom, Pearl Fernandez, her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, and two siblings in Palmdale, situated north of Los Angeles, Gabriel was shuffled between the houses of his kinfolk. Because the documentary depicts, Gabriel lived with an uncle and his associate for a time, and likewise lived along with his grandparents earlier than going to stay along with his mom. Footage of his time along with his uncles exhibits an apparently comfortable and wholesome baby. Gabriel’s well-being took a devastating flip in 2012, when Pearl Fernandez took him in, reportedly to gain welfare benefits, regardless of considerations from her household that she was neglectful towards her different youngsters.

After becoming a member of his mom and Aguirre, Gabriel landed at a brand new college. Shortly after beginning there, his instructor, Jennifer Garcia, sensed that issues weren’t okay at residence. Garcia, who seems all through the six-part sequence, says {that a} couple weeks after he began in her classroom, Gabriel requested her, “Is it normal for moms to hit their kids?” When she pressed him, Gabriel requested if it was regular to be hit with a belt buckle. “Is it normal for you to bleed?” he requested, in keeping with Garcia.

Garcia reported the alternate to the Los Angeles County baby abuse hotline and the case ended up with a social employee, Stefanie Rodriguez. In line with the documentary, Rodriguez by no means adequately made the inquiries wanted to find out the situation of Gabriel’s residence life. A 2018 investigation into Gabriel’s case printed in The Atlantic by the journalist Garrett Therolf, who additionally seems all through the sequence, cites L.A. County Division of Kids and Household Providers (DCFS) data to point out that Rodriguez by no means obtained data that confirmed Pearl Fernandez had a historical past of abusing or neglecting her different youngsters. And though Rodriguez and different representatives from companies designed to guard youngsters visited Gabriel’s residence a number of occasions, the social employees by no means discovered indicators of abuse robust sufficient to warrant eradicating him from his residence. Prosecutors would later cost Rodriguez and three different social employees with baby abuse and falsifying data in Gabriel’s case. In a quick assertion to The Atlantic, Rodriguez stated that on the time she was accountable for Gabriel, she was overseeing different youngsters whose situations she felt had been equally or extra harmful.

As the varsity yr went on, the abuse Gabriel endured worsened. He started coming to class with patches of hair lacking, scabs on his scalp, injured lips from being punched within the face and bruises throughout his face after his mom shot him with a BB gun. In line with grand jury testimony obtained by the Los Angeles Occasions, Gabriel’s siblings stated he was compelled to eat cat litter and was saved locked in a cupboard in his mom’s room. They stated Fernandez and Aguirre referred to as him “gay” and punished him for exhibiting female qualities, like taking part in with dolls.

After Pearl Fernandez referred to as 911 on Might 22, 2013 to report that Gabriel was not respiratory, the paramedics who responded discovered him with damaged ribs, a cracked cranium and BB pellets caught in his physique. Within the documentary, one paramedic who arrived on the scene says Gabriel’s case was the worst she ever encountered in her profession. The extreme abuse was instantly apparent to first responders.

Gabriel was taken to the hospital and later declared brain-dead. He died on Might 24, 2013.

Why wasn’t Gabriel’s loss of life prevented?

In making The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, Knappenberger says he wished to discover all of the elements that contributed to Gabriel’s loss of life.

Witness testimony included within the sequence and courtroom paperwork present that Fernandez and Aguirre undoubtedly abused Gabriel in the course of the time he was of their care, and ultimately tortured him till he stopped respiratory. Aguirre was sentenced to loss of life in 2018 following a conviction for first-degree homicide with the particular circumstance of intentional homicide by torture in Gabriel’s loss of life. Pearl Fernandez pleaded responsible to first-degree homicide and obtained a life sentence in jail with out parole.

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It’s clear that, regardless of the existence of presidency companies whose mission is to guard all youngsters, Gabriel’s case fell by means of some gaping cracks. For Knappenberger, the story started coming collectively after he obtained permission to movie Aguirre’s homicide trial and had an opportunity to listen to firsthand testimony from witnesses about how Gabriel was abused.

“It was gut-wrenching, to say the least,” he says of the trial. “The responses started right away. You realized how much pain is out there.”

The sequence debuts at a excessive level of popularity for true crime stories, which have discovered massive audiences by means of podcasts, books, and now, an inflow of documentaries on streaming providers. Critics have famous that obsession over true crime tales can result in a risk of sensationalism of violence, with victims’ tales exploited for leisure. Knappenberger acknowledges that The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez performs into the phenomenon, although he says he’s taking a barely completely different method to “really look at systemic problems,” and take the story past the details of the tragic case at its core. The sequence features a sizable quantity of analysis on methods to fight baby abuse, and particulars how baby protecting programs usually fail due to an absence of transparency.

In Gabriel’s case, the 4 case employees who had been presupposed to look out for him confronted prison expenses after they had been fired — a uncommon flip of occasions for caseworkers, who usually are not sometimes charged for failing to stop abuse. Rodriguez and Patricia Clement, one other social employee, together with their supervisors, Gregory Merritt and Kevin Bom, had been charged with felony counts of kid abuse and falsifying public data. An appellate panel dominated in January 2020 that the employees mustn’t face prison expenses in Gabriel’s loss of life.

The social employees had been accused of minimizing the proof that Gabriel was abused and of falsely reporting that security applications for Gabriel had been working, when the abuse was solely worsening, the documentary exhibits. Knappenberger says that as he additional investigated the story, he got here to imagine the employees had made “clear mistakes.”

“The social workers took a lot of heat. To some degree, it’s warranted,” he says. “But that’s not the end of the story. There were clear problems with the system they were operating in.”

Following Gabriel’s story delivered to mild for Knappenberger the host of challenges confronted by baby protecting providers, together with overloaded caseworkers managing in a bigger system that additionally introduced in third-party corporations and out of doors contractors to offer authorities providers for a revenue. He additionally notes a tradition of silence permeating the Division of Little one and Household Providers. Finally, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez turns into a referendum on how we deal with society’s most weak folks.

“How do we protect them?” Knappenberger asks. “And what does that say about us?”

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com.



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