Uncle breaks silence nearly 7 years after Gabriel Fernandez's death

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Sunday, May 24, 2020
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This weekend marks seven years since parental child abuse took the life of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. His memory has generated positive steps to save children. Those who knew Gabriel best talked to ABC7 about the boy.

PALMDALE, California -- This weekend marks seven years since parental child abuse took the life of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. His memory has generated positive steps to save children.

"They can't fight for themselves, they can't speak out for themselves," said Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami. "They need somebody else to do it, but especially during this time. You need to care."

The prosecutor's crusade to protect children was ignited at the Palmdale complex where Gabriel lived. Seven years later, the boy's story has traveled worldwide, and mourners have had questions.

"As far as Canada, they come. Car loads."

A new voice joined the outcry. Gabriel's uncle, Chris Contreras, is breaking his silence. He and his wife adopted Gabriel's siblings, the walking wounded.

"Something brings it back in," Contreras said. "It's all those emotions are there. It is not any easier."

Ezekiel was 12 and Virginia was 10 when they witnessed the torture inflicted by their own mother Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre.

The children testified about the bat, the BB guns, the box where Gabriel was confined, and accusations that he was gay. To this day, Contreras said Gabriel's siblings don't let themselves have fun, no matter how much he tries.

"Unfortunately, I think this is something that's going to affect them the rest of their lives. One way or another," Contreras said.

For him, it's personal. He takes aim at the Department of Children and Family Services.

"What they did is almost as bad as what Pearl and Isauro did," he said.

Four had been charged but the appeals court dismissed the case ruling that the workers did not have a legal responsibility to care for a child the way a parent did. A position rejected by Hatami.

"I think you not only have a moral and ethical obligation to save that child, I think you have a legal obligation to save that child. And if you don't, I think the public then should have the right to hold you criminally responsible," Hatami said.

The dismissal, says Contreras, was as wrong as what happened earlier. Aguirre was sentenced to death. But California's governor, citing his personal sense of morality, suspended all executions for as long as he's in office.

Contreras said Aguirre deserves no mercy, and he said evidence backs him up.

"I would show everybody that picture of Gabriel in the hospital. Because no matter how many times I saw Gabriel smile, when I think of Gabriel now, I picture him in that hospital bed, not waking up."

Gabriel's memory in the household is so painful, they avoid it. But Contreras said a door opened recently.

The couple watched the Netflix documentary "The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez."

The series originally had included the Contreras family, but to allow more time for healing, Contreras requested that their part be taken out.

He saw how it opened minds and hearts. Contreras received support he never imagined.

"I can't tell you how many people I've spoken to that have chosen a career path in social services because they say they want to make a difference," Contreras said.

"How many people have named their children after Gabriel, my five year old son's middle name is Gabriel."

And there's momentum for "Gabriel's Law." It would give an officer on an abuse call a way to quickly check for DCFS history and alert the caseworker. The proposal is pushed by Gabriel's cousin Emily Carranza who pins blame on Gabriel's social workers.

"They had the upper hand, I honestly believe to remove him and save him. But they didn't," said Carranza.

The head of DCFS says since Gabriel's death, the system has been overhauled.

"We have added thousands of case workers, which have increased the capability of us to be able to work very closely with families," said Bobby Cagle, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

Cagle was not available to answer follow up questions about two more recent DCFS death cases, also in Antelope Valley: Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro

"Children are still getting killed. Children are still getting murdered. Children are still getting tortured and this is after Gabriel," Hatami said.

The power for change, Hatami said, is reflected in a growing memorial. Amid the toys and tender mementos, a call to save children before it is too late.

"I know that those that have heard or seen his story. At least those people are going to do their part and I know that children have been saved due to his story," Contreras said.