America is its own harshest, most unforgiving critic. Our deeply entrenched divisions aside, beyond our historic prejudices and ideological obstinacies, we are a paradox: at once worshippers of democracy and the civil liberties granted to us, and self-flagellators, prodding every tender place with ruthlessness. I’ve always appreciated this about the American identity, the dual nature that has shaped the country into what it is today, for better or for worse. I’ve always marveled at the complexity and the unpredictability of our society, promising change: we are not a nation of bystanders. We sneer at complicity and passivity. We are revolutionaries, reformers and activists.
Or so I thought.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, a Netflix docu-series that narrates the court proceedings of the most despicable crime I’ve ever heard, has jarred these beliefs. The TV show follows the highly-charged prosecution of Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre for the beating and subsequent death of her son, Gabriel. However, the trial not only focuses on the night of his death, but also unearths the insidious months of sustained psychological and physical torture he experienced prior.
Just as appalling was the investigative route the docu-series took, revealing negligence on the part of social workers and other professionals who witnessed Gabriel’s abuse, yet failed to take action. Failed him. The series was equivalent to a flood of icy water to my mind — it unveiled a fracturing within bodies that should be impervious to corruption: child protective agencies.
Perhaps, I thought, my attitude towards America was too idyllic, too reminiscent of the lauded “American Dream” from the days of yore. I am, like so many other teenagers, a product of the American education system. I’ve taken the history classes, am currently enrolled in a US government course, and while I’m well aware of my country’s past atrocities — the enslavement of African-Americans, the displacement of the Natives, to name a couple — I learned about them with an expectation of hope. As if we would never again repeat our past mistakes, we would never again overlook or exploit the suffering of those too weak to defend themselves.
Children fit in that category. They are the most vulnerable, the most deserving of protection and the most sacred entities of a society. Yet, as the docu-series reveals, the country’s system is little more than a hierarchy of bureaucratic intricacies, disguised as guardians of children.
All of my knowledge of the congressional interworking in the nation, all the private sectors, all the logistics of legislative oversight, have suddenly become lurid in their ineptitude. The blatant disregard for the welfare of children in this country has become vivid. In fact, in the docu-series, a contract was quoted to have labeled children as “revenue-generating mechanisms,” portraying just how dehumanizing the system has become.
As someone on the brink of adulthood, I stand on the outskirts in abject horror. I stare at its miasma of mistakes, at the injuries Gabriel endured. Who can I trust, if I cannot believe that children can be protected in this world? If I cannot have faith that social workers and police will protect them? Where are the mandates of justice and the reverence for humanity America has preached?
A bully pulpit, perhaps. We spout our values into the ears of other nations, yet can’t be bothered to inspect whether we are following through. The system geared towards children has become all-consuming, all-powerful, distributed among so many organizations and heads that now it’s become almost impossible to mend it. Social workers are being so overloaded with cases that they are unable to thoroughly account for each of them. The burden, then, leads to mistakes that should never be made, leads to children who are left in dangerous environments, and, sometimes leads to the loss of an innocent life.
The court case examines the repercussions of such lethargy that prevailed among not only the social workers and organizations, but among other authorities as well, such as the police. When his abuse was brought to attention, rather than taking immediate action, the officers involved completely disregarded Gabriel — when they visited his home, they elected to speak to Pearl and Isauro instead while Gabriel was sequestered in another room. In a shocking display of gullibility, they then left the apartment, all without ever landing eyes on Gabriel to ensure his well-being.
In another instance, the police took an even more horrendous route: They threatened Gabriel to cease his “lies,” most likely snuffing out any of his hope of being saved. Intimidation was used to silence Gabriel, and this fact alone should have the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the police department responsible for it keeled over in shame. These participating adults were all actors of the state, bred from a sprawling bureaucracy that is so intertwined with the federal government, many consider it to be the “fourth branch.”
Gabriel Fernandez’s case is not an isolated incident. The docu-series touches upon faulty aspects of the greater system, which agencies force their members to carry out. For instance, in the childcare system, all the emphasis is placed on the parents instead. Family reunification is the mentality and often times is beneficial, but when it interferes with a child’s safety, it shouldn’t be. Right now, the extent to which workers are trying to achieve a harmonic relationship between the children and their parents is naive — not all parents are meant to be parents, and there are certainly dangerous situations that demand children be retrieved from their homes into a safer environment.
Overall, the erroneous handling of Gabriel Fernandez by so many adults in his life was a violation of the most fundamental principles that this country was constructed on. Every short-coming of every party contributed to his death; no one is free from guilt, no matter if they were acquitted in the eyes of the law. This is a devastating wake-up call: Children need proper advocacy. If the formal institutions in place cannot provide that, then it’s up to us — the pedestrians, the civilians, the security guard who happened to see evidence of abuse on Gabriel and tried to alert the authorities — to ensure what they are too near-sighted and selfish to.
There is no justifiable reason for why Gabriel had to die for others’ mistakes. Why he will never experience the trailing warmth of a summer breeze, never understand his worth and how deserving of love he was. There is no rationalization of his pain; the scope of his suffering can not be measured. And there is one, and only one, answer to complacency: action.
Photo Courtesy of Maggie Dela Paz