‘Gabriel Fernandez’ offers lessons for all

Posted March 26, 2020


Curled up in a cupboard for hours on end with ties around his feet and a gag in his mouth, 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez was living in a nightmare at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Surviving until his body could not take more, he lived in fear and pain for the last eight months of his life.

The Netflix documentary, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” is a heart-breaking six-episode series that should be watched by mature viewers due to the degree of brutally that is shown.

Director Brian Knappenberger takes the viewers through the final eight months of Gabriel’s life with a series of clips from the trials, interviews, pictures and videos. Relaying how he was failed by everyone, including the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services.

Every year there are over a million child abuse cases reported, but what had happened to Gabriel could be one of the worst. Going into this documentary expecting to see what everyone is used to hearing about these cases, it went completely above and beyond anyone’s wildest nightmares.  

How could so many people have seen this little boy and done nothing? Why didn’t someone just take him away? How many other cases are there like this out there that are not even being helped because of the lack of care? So many questions run through the minds of viewers as they watch this stomach curling series.

Taking place in Los Angeles, Gabriel Fernandez lived a normal life until moving in with his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. Focusing on the final event that ultimately ended the young boy’s life, other key components were highlighted throughout the series. The boy was in the face with a BB gun, forced to eat cat litter and experienced regular beatings. But these were just some of many torturous events that Gabriel endured. 

The mother and boyfriend were two key people in telling this story, but they were not interviewed. We learned that they are disgusting, cruel and downright evil human beings. Viewers learn about the lives of both and are given some insight as to their pasts. This is done tastefully and helps bring the story together.

Also highlighting the many other key players, the viewers were shown interviews from the boy’s teacher, grandparents and social workers. The story dives into different angles from their perspectives and the documentary describes how they ultimately failed Gabriel as well.

First grade teacher Jennifer Garcia was one of the few people who spent the most time with Gabriel. Confiding in her, she knew of the abuse that lead her to call the California Department of Child and Family Services. Garcia thought calling the services would help Gabriel, when in fact they did nothing. She continued to see him come to class with bruises and burns everywhere. Some days his eyes swollen shut and haircuts that left patches of blood on his scalp.

Interviews with key individuals such as Garcias were done very well, which ultimately contributed to the overall cleanness of the production. Pictures were timed perfectly with the voice-overs and mood music emphasized every feeling a viewer watching it could have.

Some of the pictures of Gabriel were very graphic but necessary to show just how horrible this situation became.  Particular images like the ones of him lying on the examination table and seeing almost every inch of his body injured were very challenging to view. Although these images were limited in number, they were shown at moments that were absolutely necessary.

This documentary exposed the California Department of Child and Family Services, showing the countless times that its their lack of care, organization, and support hurt Gabriel. This was very educational for viewers who does not realize how the system can fail those within.

Again, the most surprising thing of all was the number of people who knew what was going on and did nothing, simply standing by while an 8-year-old was being tortured and abused. That was shown throughout the documentary and was something no viewer will forget.

That little boy in the cupboard could be one of many that go unknown.  A need for change in social services is real and necessary.

“The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez”

  • Director: Brian Knappenberger
  • Production companies: Luminant Media, Common Sense Media
  • Distributor: Netflix
  • Original Release: Feb. 26
  • Genre: True Crime, Documentary
  • Number of Seasons: 1
  • Number of Episodes: 6