The Public Eye: Expert notes CPS missteps before Sacramento child hatchet murder

05/19/2013 12:00 AM

05/19/2013 12:26 PM

Three weeks before he allegedly murdered his 9-year-old son with a hatchet, Phillip Raymond Hernandez was the subject of a complaint to Sacramento County Child Protective Services alleging that he neglected his two boys.

In the course of its investigation, CPS learned that Hernandez had served time in prison for domestic abuse and he abused methamphetamine and marijuana.

The agency came up with a safety plan for his two children: Make sure Hernandez sees them only in the presence of his 72-year-old grandmother, who lived with him and the children.

On Feb. 26, Sacramento police say, Hernandez fought off his grandmother as he took a hatchet to his son, Matthew. He faces a murder charge in Superior Court.

"They could use this case as an example of how not to conduct a (CPS) investigation," said Bill Grimm, a child welfare expert and senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, who reviewed case records at the request of The Bee.

CPS failed to protect the children because a social worker didn't gather needed information to properly assess the risk, he said.

Officials at CPS said they are still reviewing how the case was handled but defend key parts of the investigation.

"At the point in time in which the safety plan was developed, there were no current indications from information obtained from various parties that the father was unstable or was likely to direct violent behavior toward his children," Michelle Callejas, deputy director for CPS, said in a written statement.

In response to a petition by The Bee, the Sacramento Superior Court last week released a 198-page juvenile court file about Matthew Hernandez.

In addition to the neglect investigation, the file contains records about a custody battle between Matthew's parents over him and his older brother and three previous neglect reports involving Matthew. Two of the complaints were found inconclusive, while the third was upheld against the mother because her boyfriend bit Matthew.

Matthew's mother, Jessica Hernandez, made the most recent report of neglect to CPS on Feb. 2, records show. She complained about her ex-husband's drug use, his past violence toward her and signs of violence such as letting the children play with weapons.

The report also noted that "when he is high, he becomes violent."

The CPS social worker interviewed Hernandez and Matthew about the guns, records show. Hernandez said he let the boys use guns at a firing range, and they had play guns at home. Matthew confirmed the latter part in a separate interview.

Grimm of the National Center for Youth Law said the social worker needed to dig deeper to find out about the guns, such as interviewing other sources about whether Hernandez had them.

She spoke to Hernandez's grandmother but apparently never asked about guns, the records show. In general, the social worker failed to interview secondary sources, such as Matthew's teacher and brother, who could have provided important information, Grimm said.

Such criticism isn't fair because the investigation was not complete, Callejas said in her written response.

The social worker also should have examined court records to better determine Hernandez's violent tendencies, Grimm said.

The social worker's log indicates she found out about Hernandez's record of domestic abuse by talking to him and his ex-wife. The social worker didn't check court records until the day after Matthew's death.

In 2004, Phillip and Jessica were separated when he showed up at her home with a gun, threatening to kill her and rape her, according to court records. Then he threatened to kill himself, saying, "I will have a bullet in my head because of you."

He was sentenced to 120 days in jail and five years of probation. He violated the probation when he showed up at her home after being released from jail, court records show.

Jessica Hernandez told police that Phillip forced his way into her home, then bruised her as he tried to fight with her for the phone and prevent her from calling 911. He smashed the phone.

He served 15 months in prison for the probation violation.

Given this record of violence and drug use, Grimm said, CPS should not have left a 72-year-old woman responsible for protecting his children from him. Both the grandmother and Hernandez agreed to the safety plan requiring her presence around the two boys, records show.

The social worker investigating the case also addressed Hernandez's drug use. He tested positive for meth and marijuana. Hernandez agreed to go to drug treatment at The Effort, a Sacramento social service agency, records show.

When the social worker tried to find out if he had followed through on his agreement, she was told that she had not properly filled out a form to get that information from another county agency.

The social worker said she spoke to Hernandez and he told her that he was supposed to go to treatment orientation on Feb. 26 – the day his son was killed.

After the boy's death, the social worker learned that Hernandez never showed up for drug treatment, records show.

Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @bradb_at_sacbee.

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