December 3, 2023

SAN JOSE – Trying again, it was arduous to overlook the indicators that foretold the tragedy of Phoenix Castro’s brief life.

Two months earlier than the child’s beginning, her pregnant mom and father submitted to a drug take a look at as a part of a security plan to get their two older kids again from Santa Clara County’s little one welfare company.

Their checks each got here again constructive — for opiates, cocaine and methamphetamine.

The day after Phoenix was born with neonatal opioid withdrawal signs, a social employee was referred to as to the hospital to find out whether or not the child could be protected along with her troubled household within the two-bedroom condominium off Blossom Hill Street in South San Jose.

The results of that evaluation, revealed in almost 200 pages of paperwork obtained this week by the Bay Space Information Group, sounded an alarm within the starkest phrases:

Neglect Threat Degree: Very Excessive.

Abuse Threat Degree: Excessive.

Last Threat Degree: Very Excessive.

However even one other dire warning from a social employee overseeing the case of the couple’s two older kids wasn’t sufficient to avoid wasting child Phoenix.

A day earlier than the toddler was despatched residence, social employee Matthew Kraft despatched an e mail to colleagues, alarmed that the child’s dad and mom hadn’t “addressed any of the problems that introduced them into the system could be very troubling.”

The couple’s two older kids suffered from neglect so extreme it resulted in “developmental delays,” he wrote within the e mail obtained by the Bay Space Information Group. “I fear that Phoenix could also be topic to that very same stage of neglect and probably lead to her demise.”

Lower than three months later, these fears got here true.

Rita De La Cerda wipes away tears throughout a prayer circle for her daughter and granddaughter outdoors the Corridor of Justice on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. Family and friends members gathered outdoors the courthouse for child Phoenix, who died of fentanyl poisoning as a 3-month-old. Phoenix’s mother, Emily De La Cerda, died of fentanyl a couple of months after her child. The newborn’s father David Castro is at present in jail going through prices within the demise of his daughter. (Aric Crabb/Bay Space Information Group) 

Reckoning begins

Left in her father’s care, child Phoenix died after ingesting a deadly dose of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Now — with Phoenix’s father in jail, going through a felony little one endangerment cost, and her mom additionally useless from her personal fentanyl overdose 4 months after her child’s demise — the query of why so many individuals disregarded so many warnings is on the coronary heart of a reckoning throughout the county’s little one welfare system.

A Bay Space Information Group investigation of kid protecting service data, inside e mail exchanges, drug screenings, and interviews with county officers, social employees, members of the family, neighbors, and others level to various evident missteps and disturbing oversights that led to the demise of child Phoenix. It additionally reveals an company struggling to stability the idealistic objective of retaining households along with the vital mission of retaining kids protected.

The county’s high government James Williams admitted in a prolonged interview with the Bay Space Information Group that the county “dropped the ball” by sending the child residence along with her father, David Castro. Within the early weeks, the child’s mom, Emily De La Cerda, wasn’t within the residence as a result of she was in jail on excellent bench warrants and later checked right into a residential therapy facility.

Emily De La Cerda, 39, died of a fentanyl overdose four months after the death of her baby, Phoenix Castro, on Sept. 16, 2023. (Courtesy of Edward Morillo)
Emily De La Cerda, 39, died of a fentanyl overdose 4 months after the demise of her child, Phoenix Castro, on Sept. 16, 2023. (Courtesy of Edward Morillo) 

The county promised full transparency and referred to as on the state to evaluate what went improper.

However precisely who was behind these essential selections, and the way and why they have been made, remains to be shrouded in secrecy — hidden behind heavy redactions within the data the county Division of Household and Kids Companies turned over this previous week that element the county’s important involvement with the household main as much as child Phoenix’s demise.

Most of the redactions within the child’s case file have been the work of the Santa Clara County District Legal professional’s workplace, who say the main points may jeopardize their legal case in opposition to Phoenix’s father. However on the request of the Bay Space Information Group, a district legal professional spokesman mentioned they’re reviewing the file to find out whether or not they can open extra of the paperwork to the general public.

This information group additionally obtained unique paperwork, which the county didn’t present, that exposed but extra purple flags about child Phoenix that went unheeded.

County Supervisor Cindy Chavez has referred to as for a particular listening to in December to analyze the breakdown.

“Kids are essentially the most weak inhabitants in our neighborhood,” Chavez wrote in calling for the listening to, “and when their care falls upon the federal government, there isn’t any different public duty that’s extra vital.”

Referred to as her ‘child lady’

The recordsdata clarify that Phoenix’s beginning required an “rapid response” from social employees. Kaiser San Jose Medical Middle referred to as Santa Clara County’s little one welfare hotline to report that the child’s Feb. 12 nighttime supply had been sophisticated by the new child’s withdrawal signs from her mom’s drug use throughout being pregnant.

The subsequent day, when the social employee arrived within the hospital room, the daddy was altering the child’s diaper. He and the mom took turns holding her. Barely a day previous, the toddler didn’t but have a reputation. The dad and mom referred to as her “child lady.”

De La Cerda, 39, and Castro, 38, have been already well-known to the county’s Division of Household and Kids’s Companies.

Their two older kids, barely 3 and 4, had been faraway from the couple’s care lower than a 12 months earlier. In keeping with inside emails, each dad and mom have been taken to jail for excellent warrants and the youngsters have been positioned with their maternal grandmother, Rita De La Cerda. The daddy had a historical past of drug arrests. And the mom — who additionally had two older kids with different fathers — had substance abuse and psychological well being points and a legal report of her personal.

In 2016, whereas six months pregnant and driving drunk, Emily De La Cerda crashed right into a parked San Jose Police automotive, courtroom data present. Her 1-year-old son, unstrapped within the backseat, flew into the floorboards. After the accident, she misplaced custody to the boy’s father. She later misplaced custody of her second little one to the lady’s father.

The 2 kids at the moment are thriving, their fathers say, and Phoenix ought to have had the identical likelihood.

“Phoenix ought to have been faraway from their care,” mentioned Jessie Conley, father of De La Cerda’s first little one. “Everybody says enable the system to work, belief the method. But we’re seeing proper right here proper in entrance of our eyes, that the system doesn’t work. It failed.”

A day after the birth of Phoenix Castro, a Santa Clara County social worker used a Risk Assessment, obtained in a public records request by the Bay Area News Group, that determined the risk of sending her home with her family was "Very High." Even so, a decision was made to disregard the assessment's recommendation to "promote" the case, which could have placed the baby in someone else's care. The explanation for why is redacted in the document.
A day after the beginning of Phoenix Castro, a Santa Clara County social employee used a Threat Evaluation, obtained in a public data request by the Bay Space Information Group, that decided the danger of sending her residence along with her household was “Very Excessive.” Even so, a call was made to ignore the evaluation’s advice to “promote” the case, which may have positioned the child in another person’s care. The reason for why is redacted within the doc. 

Was county counsel concerned?

There are instruments in place to safeguard weak kids: little one abuse hotlines, security plans and a common guidelines that social employees depend on to resolve whether or not a baby may very well be at risk.

However a query over a major drop in Santa Clara County’s removals of at-risk kids in recent times led final 12 months to a state investigation of the native company. It discovered that attorneys within the county counsel’s workplace usually overrode suggestions from social employees and supervisors to take away kids from unsafe houses. The authorized group’s heightened affect was a part of a shift within the county’s philosophy to maintain households collectively by means of security plans and important companies.

In Phoenix’s case, the social employee’s first evaluation not solely warned that the child was at “very excessive” threat but in addition really helpful that the company open a proper case, which may have resulted within the elimination of the kid.

For causes which can be nonetheless unclear, nevertheless, the evaluation said the company wouldn’t open a case. Phoenix’s father took her residence on Feb. 28 after promising to observe an in depth “security plan,” which included commonly participating with a public well being nurse and social employee and visits from the child’s grandmother 3 times per week, the paperwork present.

In an interview Thursday, Damion Wright, the director of the county’s Division of Household and Kids’s Companies, mentioned within the child Phoenix case, the social employee and supervisor made the choice — with out consulting the county counsel — to ship the child residence along with her dad.

David Castro, 38, was arrested on October 20th after his 3-month-old baby girl Phoenix Castro died of fentanyl poisoning back in May. (Courtesy of San Jose Police)
David Castro, 38, was arrested on October twentieth after his 3-month-old child lady Phoenix Castro died of fentanyl poisoning again in Could. (Courtesy of San Jose Police) 

“Positively, on this specific case, relating to this specific little one,” Wright mentioned in a phone interview, “there isn’t any indication of county counsel overriding any determination.”

Social employee union consultant Alex Lesniak, a chief steward for the county welfare company, mentioned she couldn’t touch upon Phoenix’s case. However county social employees are involved, she mentioned, about “the function county counsel has more and more had within the final determination of whether or not or not a baby is faraway from the house.”

Steve Baron, a member of the Santa Clara County Baby Abuse Prevention Council, mentioned it’s unfair accountable child Phoenix’s demise on a single social employee or supervisor.

As a substitute, he mentioned, the county’s little one safety company has a “systemic” impulse to maintain kids within the care of their dad and mom, even when there are flashing purple warning indicators {that a} little one could also be at risk.

Phoenix’s demise, he mentioned, “will not be an outlier case.”

The ‘security plan’

Within the hospital room the day after Phoenix was born, the social employee introduced up the couple’s poor observe report of following by means of on the very applications that may have helped return their two older kids to their residence.

He inspired them “to vary this sample of permitting issues to distract them or hold them from commonly taking part in companies supplied to them,” in keeping with the case file.

Two days later, in a “little one and household group” assembly, the social employee expressed concern in regards to the child’s security if drug use continued within the residence.

Again residence with the child within the weeks that adopted, Castro didn’t observe among the key measures within the security plan, the case recordsdata present.

He declined to join check-ins with a public well being nurse.

On two events, when the social employee assigned to the case stopped by the household’s residence for face-to-face conferences, no one answered the door. Throughout one try, on March 16, the social employee stood outdoors Castro’s condominium and referred to as him on the cellphone, solely to hit voicemail.

The very subsequent day, neighbors heard a lady’s voice screaming and crying from the household’s condominium. The mom, De La Cerda, was out of jail and again within the condominium. Police arrived and, in keeping with neighbors, took her away on a gurney.

Particulars of what occurred that night are redacted within the child’s case file — not less than 10 pages price — besides a notice that the disturbance concerned “normal neglect” and “emotional abuse.” The incident triggered one other little one welfare referral, the second since child Phoenix’s beginning, and one other alternative to reassess the protection of the kid who was now slightly below 5 weeks previous.

In emails dated March 20, two social employee supervisors expressed concern that De La Cerda was within the residence and that Castro appeared “unable or unwilling to set wholesome boundaries” along with her. However Castro was given credit score for calling the police and would quickly be on his personal with the child once more as his spouse sought therapy.

Rita De La Cerda, left, wipes away tears during a prayer circle for her daughter and granddaughter outside the Hall of Justice on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in San Jose, Calif. Friends and family members gathered outside the courthouse for baby Phoenix, who died of fentanyl poisoning as a 3-month-old. Phoenix's mom, Emily De La Cerda, died of fentanyl a few months after her baby. The baby's father David Castro is currently in jail facing charges in the death of his daughter. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Rita De La Cerda, left, wipes away tears throughout a prayer circle for her daughter and granddaughter outdoors the Corridor of Justice on Tuesday in San Jose. Family and friends members gathered outdoors the courthouse for child Phoenix, who died of fentanyl poisoning as a 3-month-old. (Aric Crabb/Bay Space Information Group) 

Progress to tragedy

Over the subsequent month, the social employee visited the condominium not less than 3 times and marked persevering with progress.

On March 24, the child was “peacefully resting” in her bassinet with a stack of diapers and wipes close by. “There was no issues (sic) of the kid crying or being agitated or malnourished,” the social employee wrote.

Throughout two extra visits in April, the social employee wrote that the child “is rising and displayed a relaxed and peaceable nature,” and “praised the daddy for his dedication to stay in touch.”

By April 26, the social employee accomplished the protection evaluation, marking the child “protected” and concluding that “there are not any kids more likely to be in rapid hazard of great hurt.”