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New Netflix Show 'The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez' Highlights the Disturbing Way We Fail Abused Kids

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Editor's Note

The following post contains spoilers for the Netflix show, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.” If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering, as it contains some graphic descriptions of abuse. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

The new Netflix series “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” is a six-part documentary about 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez’s horrific and widely publicized death in 2013. The documentary, largely based on the investigation by former Los Angeles Times reporter, Garrett Thereof, examines the unimaginable abuse Gabriel endured at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, as well as the systems of government that didn’t protect him.

The number of times I thought, “How could this have happened for so long?” was disturbing as I watched every tear-dropping moment of the limited docuseries.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the following post will include spoilers. This series may trigger others who have experienced any type of childhood physical or sexual abuse. But, at the same time, it opens your eyes to how much control government agencies have, and how they can fail children when they need help the most.

It’s horrifying to see how “normal” it is for adults to care less about a child. The type of adults I’m referring to in the film are the everyday people who seem nice and are there to support children. That is the worst part.

In Gabriel’s case, these people were his grandparents, parents and mandated reporters like social workers, department of children and family services (DCFS) staff, domestic abuse employees and their bosses at the welfare office.

Throughout the documentary, we see these people fail Gabriel again and again. Gabriel never gave up on begging for help from adults. He would make signals, and would flat out ask if getting hit and bleeding was “normal.” He asked for his teacher to call DCFS (and she did). But time and again, anyone tied to the government let him down. They let him down so much that he died a gruesome death after a life filled with physical and mental torture.

These government figures saw cigarette burns on Gabriel’s scalp, his hair chopped off with cut marks, black eyes, bleeding lips, teeth knocked out and bruises all over his arms. Each person turned away because they didn’t want to lose their job or they wanted to look good for their superiors.

“The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” was hard to watch because it reveals our capacity as humans to be selfish. These people ignored the clear fact that this innocent child was being abused because they were afraid to do the right thing. Gabriel died because no one intervened for him.

Many people struggling with mental health problems or in need of support don’t get the proper care they need — especially people from lower income communities. These communities can be filled with generational abuse and mental health issues that are not addressed properly. We see this reflected in the fact that Gabriel’s grandparents abused his mother, who then abused him.

From my experience, even when resources are available, many people do not get the help they need because they don’t trust that the governmental institutions set up to help them will actually help them. Gabriel’s story proves this can be the case.

One of the most heartbreaking parts of Gabriel’s story is that he had a wonderful life growing up with his uncle who was gay and in a long-term relationship with his partner. Because of one (and most likely false) report of sexual abuse, he was removed from his uncle’s care immediately.

Yet the overwhelming evidence of physical abuse from his mother and her boyfriend was ignored. Multiple DCFS workers took zero steps in ensuring Gabriel and his siblings were safe. They believed anything the mother and his siblings said (who feared to stray from what their mother said, obviously!). It doesn’t take a degree in social work to understand that children lie in front of their parents or that an abuser will lie to protect themselves.

The sad part about this story is that this isn’t an anomaly. Children are abused every single day. Whether children are in foster care or at home, abuse is rampant because our system is broken. The real purpose of this documentary is to shed light on how our government can fail the most vulnerable people in our communities. This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.

Could you imagine what kinds of changes would occur if we properly funded our social welfare system? Could you imagine what would happen if social workers weren’t overworked and incentivized to lie in order to protect their jobs and their bosses?

What if we had services that effectively connected communities and government agencies so they could actually provide guidance, help and care to those who need it most? From there, families could start to heal and work towards a better life. “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” is a grim look at where social services fail, and how we need to do better.

Header image via Netflix

Originally published: March 10, 2020
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