The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is a thorough and heartbreaking examination of the systemic forces that allow child abuse to flourish undetected in the United States. At the center of the series is Gabriel Fernandez, an eight-year-old boy who died in May 2013 after being severely abused and tortured by his mother and her boyfriend, both of whom were arrested and convicted for his death. Through interviews with members of Gabriel’s family, courtroom testimony, and insight from experts on psychology and family relationships, documentarian Brian Knappenberger attempts to answer some key questions: What, exactly, happened to Gabriel, and why didn’t anyone step in to save him?
“Nobody listened to Gabriel when he was alive,” Knappenberger tells TIME. “A lot of people failed him, and there’s a lot of reasons that this happened. But when you get to the end, it’s about: how do you want to treat kids?”
Who was Gabriel Fernandez?
By all accounts, based on interviews in the series and news reports following his death, Gabriel was — like most kids — a sweet child who liked to be helpful and sought the love of his family. Prior to moving in with his mother, Pearl Fernandez, her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, and two siblings in Palmdale, located north of Los Angeles, Gabriel was shuffled between the homes of his relatives. As the documentary depicts, Gabriel lived with an uncle and his partner for a time, and also lived with his grandparents before going to live with his mother. Footage of his time with his uncles shows an apparently happy and healthy child. Gabriel’s well-being took a devastating turn in 2012, when Pearl Fernandez took him in, reportedly to gain welfare benefits, despite concerns from her family that she was neglectful toward her other children.