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Santa Clara County supervisors were ‘in the dark’ over concerns at child welfare agency before baby’s fentanyl death

San Jose Mercury News - 11/19/2023

SAN JOSE – The fallout from the fentanyl death of baby Phoenix Castro is growing as the director of Santa Clara County’s child welfare agency scrambled to impose new policies to prevent future tragedies while county supervisors expressed outrage Saturday that they have been kept in the dark about the life and death decisions affecting the county’s most vulnerable children.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who has called for a hearing on baby Phoenix’s death, said her “blood is boiling” over not being informed about changes afoot at the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services. And Supervisor Sylvia Arenas told the Bay Area News Group she feels a “breach of trust” by county officials who failed to notify the board about a state investigation earlier this year critical of the welfare agency.

“We should be seen as partners,” Arenas said of the county agencies involved in keeping at-risk children safe. “To be left out of this is absolutely horrifying.”

The concerns come amid increasing outcry over the county’s missteps in the brief life of the three-month-old San Jose girl who died May 13 from a fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose in her father’s care despite multiple warning signs that she wouldn’t be safe with her parents. The father, David Castro, is facing felony child endangerment charges in court Monday. The mother, Emily De La Cerda, died four months after her daughter, also of a fentanyl overdose.

The tragedy also exposed the outsized role lawyers in the County Counsel’s office have played in overriding social workers’ recommendations to remove at-risk children from their homes – a practice that was the focus of a state investigation delivered to the county in February.

Arenas, a member of the Board of Supervisors’ Children, Seniors and Family Committee, said she repeatedly pressed the county’s Social Services Agency Director Dan Little during meetings early this year about that conflict between the attorneys and social workers, but Little never mentioned the state investigation or the county’s response to it in April.

Only when the Bay Area News Group obtained the state report and was set to publish a story earlier this month was the board informed about the probe.

“It’s absolutely alarming that leadership would not communicate this with the Board of Supervisors,” Arenas said in an interview Saturday.

Arenas and Chavez also want more information about far-reaching changes imposed in the last few days on how the child welfare agency responds to cases like baby Phoenix’s – including reforms aimed at heightening attention to babies who are born with drugs in their system.

The new policy, obtained by the Bay Area News Group, was unveiled in an email from Damion Wright, director of the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services, to the staff Wednesday, just days after this news organization’s investigation found that the department overlooked numerous red flags in Baby Phoenix’s case.

Wright declined an interview to explain the changes, but in a statement Friday night, he said that they were intended to “provide clarity” about preventative measures to help avoid another Baby Phoenix case, including requiring weekly visits from social workers when at-risk newborns are taken home.

“We can never put too many eyes on our youngest and most vulnerable children,” Wright wrote. “I want to make sure vulnerable children at risk of abuse or neglect are seen regularly, especially if fentanyl or other substance use is involved.”

Among the new policies when social workers are called to respond to reports of abuse or neglect:

County social workers are not authorized to speak to the media, but some told the Bay Area News Group they are encouraged to see the new safeguards. Many of the policy changes, however, were normal practice as recently as three years ago, they said, before the department shifted emphasis towards keeping families together over removing at-risk children from their homes.

Child welfare experts welcomed many of the department’s reforms when told about them by the Bay Area News Group.

Arenas, who worked for more than a decade as an early childhood specialist in the county’s Dependency Court, said sending cases involving babies like Phoenix directly to court supervision is a good thing.

When she saw meth-addicted babies coming through the court, she said, “I didn’t see any of them dying – because there was a court that was overseeing them. There was a level of accountability.”

Andrew Cain, directing attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley that represents at-risk kids in court, said that his organization has noticed an uptick in the number of dependency court filings just in the last few weeks.

If the upswing persists, it could mean that more high-risk families will enter the court system. Cain said there are always risks to exposing kids to the child welfare system, which has its own problems. But so far the shift toward the courts in the last few weeks has been gradual, and the department’s new policy pronouncements strike a sensible balance, he said.

Still, Steve Baron, a member of the Santa Clara County Child Abuse Prevention Council, which is tasked with preventing and responding to child abuse and neglect, worried that children over the age of 5 seemed to be left out of the policy changes.

“What about a 6-year-old-girl or 8-year-old whose brains are still developing at a rapid rate who are still very young and totally dependent on caretaking?” Baron asked.

Regardless of whatever changes take effect while baby Phoenix’s case is in the headlines, Baron said more work needs to be done to ensure that children remain safe going forward.

“I’m always worried that people get really concerned, there are some changes, and then business goes back to usual,” Baron said. “Not one change would have happened unless the heat was on.”

The supervisors pledged to keep the heat on at a Dec. 19 public hearing to review baby Phoenix’s case and other systemic problems that arose in its aftermath.

“We have an obligation to be open when we make mistakes, to be honest about the changes,” Chavez said. “I don’t want to be even remotely unclear about that or soft about that.”

Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg said Saturday that she had been apprised of the recent reforms but didn’t know enough to say whether they would be sufficient to protect other vulnerable children.

Like many others, she is particularly concerned about whether the county’s efforts to correct past practices that removed a disproportionate number of children of color from their families has gone too far in overlooking the dangers facing at-risk kids. The baby Phoenix case suggests it did.

“Whether the pendulum has swung too far in this case,” she said, “seems to be an obvious yes.”

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