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

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The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is a thorough and heartbreaking examination of the systemic forces that allow child abuse to flourish undetected in the United States. At the center of the series is Gabriel Fernandez, an eight-year-old boy who died in May 2013 after being severely abused and tortured by his mother and her boyfriend, both of whom were arrested and convicted for his death. Through interviews with members of Gabriel’s family, courtroom testimony, and insight from experts on psychology and family relationships, documentarian Brian Knappenberger attempts to answer some key questions: What, exactly, happened to Gabriel, and why didn’t anyone step in to save 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?”

Here’s what to know about the true story behind the series, out on Netflix on Feb. 26.

Who was Gabriel Fernandez?

By all accounts, based on interviews in the series and news reports following his death, Gabriel was — like most kids — a sweet child who liked to be helpful and sought the love of his family. Prior to moving in with his mother, Pearl Fernandez, her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, and two siblings in Palmdale, located north of Los Angeles, Gabriel was shuffled between the homes of his relatives. As the documentary depicts, Gabriel lived with an uncle and his partner for a time, and also lived with his grandparents before going to live with his mother. Footage of his time with his uncles shows an apparently happy and healthy child. Gabriel’s well-being took a devastating turn in 2012, when Pearl Fernandez took him in, reportedly to gain welfare benefits, despite concerns from her family that she was neglectful toward her other children.

After joining his mother and Aguirre, Gabriel landed at a new school. Shortly after starting there, his teacher, Jennifer Garcia, sensed that things were not okay at home. Garcia, who appears throughout the six-part series, says that a couple weeks after he started in her classroom, Gabriel asked her, “Is it normal for moms to hit their kids?” When she pressed him, Gabriel asked if it was normal to be hit with a belt buckle. “Is it normal for you to bleed?” he asked, according to Garcia.

Garcia reported the exchange to the Los Angeles County child abuse hotline and the case ended up with a social worker, Stefanie Rodriguez. According to the documentary, Rodriguez never adequately made the inquiries needed to determine the condition of Gabriel’s home life. A 2018 investigation into Gabriel’s case published in The Atlantic by the journalist Garrett Therolf, who also appears throughout the series, cites L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) records to show that Rodriguez never received information that showed Pearl Fernandez had a history of abusing or neglecting her other children. And although Rodriguez and other representatives from agencies designed to protect children visited Gabriel’s home multiple times, the social workers never found signs of abuse strong enough to warrant removing him from his home. Prosecutors would later charge Rodriguez and three other social workers with child abuse and falsifying records in Gabriel’s case. In a brief statement to The Atlantic, Rodriguez said that at the time she was responsible for Gabriel, she was overseeing other children whose conditions she felt were equally or more dangerous.

As the school year went on, the abuse Gabriel endured worsened. He began coming to class with patches of hair missing, scabs on his scalp, injured lips from being punched in the face and bruises all over his face after his mother shot him with a BB gun. According to grand jury testimony obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Gabriel’s siblings said he was forced to eat cat litter and was kept locked in a cabinet in his mother’s room. They said Fernandez and Aguirre called him “gay” and punished him for exhibiting feminine qualities, like playing with dolls.

After Pearl Fernandez called 911 on May 22, 2013 to report that Gabriel was not breathing, the paramedics who responded found him with broken ribs, a cracked skull and BB pellets stuck in his body. In the documentary, one paramedic who arrived at the scene says Gabriel’s case was the worst she ever encountered in her career. The severe abuse was immediately obvious to first responders.

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

Why wasn’t Gabriel’s death prevented?

In making The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, Knappenberger says he wanted to explore all the factors that contributed to Gabriel’s death.

Witness testimony included in the series and court documents show that Fernandez and Aguirre undoubtedly abused Gabriel during the time he was in their care, and eventually tortured him until he stopped breathing. Aguirre was sentenced to death in 2018 following a conviction for first-degree murder with the special circumstance of intentional murder by torture in Gabriel’s death. Pearl Fernandez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received a life sentence in prison without parole.

It’s clear that, despite the existence of government agencies whose mission is to protect all children, Gabriel’s case fell through some gaping cracks. For Knappenberger, the story began coming together after he received permission to film Aguirre’s murder trial and had a chance to hear 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 series debuts at a high point of popularity for true crime stories, which have found large audiences through podcasts, books, and now, an influx of documentaries on streaming services. Critics have noted that obsession over true crime stories can lead to a risk of sensationalism of violence, with victims’ stories exploited for entertainment. Knappenberger acknowledges that The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez plays into the phenomenon, though he says he’s taking a slightly different approach to “really look at systemic problems,” and take the story beyond the facts of the tragic case at its core. The series includes a sizable amount of research on ways to combat child abuse, and details how child protective systems often fail because of a lack of transparency.

In Gabriel’s case, the four case workers who were supposed to look out for him faced criminal charges after they were fired — a rare turn of events for caseworkers, who are not typically charged for failing to prevent abuse. Rodriguez and Patricia Clement, another social worker, along with their supervisors, Gregory Merritt and Kevin Bom, were charged with felony counts of child abuse and falsifying public records. An appellate panel ruled in January 2020 that the workers should not face criminal charges in Gabriel’s death.

The social workers were accused of minimizing the evidence that Gabriel was abused and of falsely reporting that safety programs for Gabriel were working, when the abuse was only worsening, the documentary shows. Knappenberger says that as he further investigated the story, he came to believe the workers 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.”

In a statement to The Wrap published March 2, the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services said “a new era of reform” began in the wake of Gabriel’s death and that the department has implemented several new policies to ensure child safety. The department has hired more than 3,000 new social workers since 2013 in an effort to lower caseloads for workers and retrained workers on how to interview witnesses and detect physical injuries, according to the statement.

“It should never take the death of a child to address weaknesses and make investments in improvements for child protection,” DCFS said. “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.”

Following Gabriel’s story brought to light for Knappenberger the host of challenges faced by child protective services, including overloaded caseworkers managing in a larger system that also brought in third-party companies and outside contractors to provide government services for a profit. He also notes a culture of silence permeating the Department of Child and Family Services. Ultimately, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez becomes a referendum on how we treat society’s most vulnerable people.

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

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