December 3, 2023

SAN JOSE – Santa Clara County’s high govt acknowledged Saturday that county companies in control of defending youngsters made errors in permitting a father with a historical past of drug abuse to take care of his 3-month-old daughter Phoenix Castro, who died of a fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose in Might.

“The county dropped the ball,” County Government James Williams stated. “My opinion is that child Phoenix shouldn’t have been within the care of the daddy – interval.”

Williams’ admission got here throughout an hour-long interview because the Bay Space Information Group pressed him on a newly-obtained, troubling state report that discovered the county’s authorized workplace steadily overrode choices by social staff to take away youngsters from unsafe properties.

Williams, who till July served because the county’s lead counsel, disputed that declare, however stated the county has shifted its philosophy as a part of an effort to keep away from splitting up households. He wouldn’t say whether or not that factored into the dying of child Phoenix.

The report – launched Friday night to the Bay Space Information Group – was delivered to the county in February after the state Division of Social Providers obtained “considerations” that the county counsel’s workplace was making key choices that would depart youngsters at risk.

As a part of the investigation, the state stated it reviewed a number of instances of kids who had been positioned into protecting custody by legislation enforcement, however that the county’s Division of Household and Youngsters’s Providers “instantly positioned the youngsters again within the care of the unsafe guardian.” The report additionally discovered social staff expressed confusion and frustration over the county’s up to date “threshold” for eradicating youngsters.

Revelations from the report come after neighbors not too long ago advised this information group that they referred to as police quite a few occasions to specific their considerations about child Phoenix being left alone along with her father earlier than her dying Might 13.

Williams, who referred to as among the state’s findings “extraordinarily alarming,” declined to offer particulars of child Phoenix’s case. He wouldn’t say whether or not social staff had requested that the infant be eliminated, or whether or not county legal professionals denied the request. However he did acknowledge that though the county carried out an evaluation of the daddy’s health to take custody of Phoenix, that evaluation was inadequate.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams speaks throughout a press convention in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Space Information Group) (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Space Information Group)

Phoenix was born in February, the identical month the state delivered its report back to the county. The toddler was uncovered to fentanyl and methamphetamines whereas nonetheless within the womb, and her mom, Emily De La Cerda, was despatched into drug therapy.

Phoenix’s father, David Castro, was allowed to take the infant dwelling to the couple’s residence off Blossom Hill Street in South San Jose. Lower than a 12 months earlier, the county’s youngster safety  company had already eliminated the couple’s two older youngsters, now 3 and 4, from their dwelling.

Williams stated he couldn’t clarify why the company deemed the dad and mom unfit to take care of these youngsters, however allowed the daddy to take care of the brand new child. The county has nonetheless not launched data, requested by this information group, about Phoenix’s case.

4 months after child Phoenix’s dying, her mom De La Cerda additionally died of a fentanyl overdose. And Castro, who had eight earlier drug convictions and confided to a neighbor he was hooked on fentanyl, is now in jail going through a cost of felony youngster endangerment. The day Phoenix died, police discovered drug paraphernalia and damaged glass pipes on the identical kitchen counter because the child’s bottle. It’s unclear how the infant ingested the medicine. The mom was in rehab and wasn’t nursing.

In response to inquiries from the Bay Space Information Group, the county stated final month that “no stone will likely be left unturned” in its evaluate of the troubling case.

It additionally referred to as on the state to evaluate its dealing with of child Phoenix’s dying. On the time, county officers didn’t reveal that the state had already been probing the county’s dealing with of kid welfare instances.

As a part of that investigation, the state interviewed a dozen social staff, managers and supervisors final 12 months.

Santa Clara County Little one Abuse Prevention Council member Steve Baron, who oversaw mediation for a whole bunch of kid abuse and neglect instances within the county, stated that the state’s findings “can solely be thought-about a scandal.”

He stated the county counsel gave the impression to be taking part in a dramatically outsized position by overriding the standard course of for eradicating youngsters from unsafe properties.

“It looks like the county counsel is making choices … that basically relate to the protection of the kid,” he stated. “They usually’re not certified to try this. That’s not their position.”

In its written response to the state report, the county defended its prioritization of household reunification, saying the apply is “based mostly on more and more clear proof demonstrating the numerous and lasting trauma youngsters expertise with even transient durations of removing from their household.”

As an alternative of separating households, the purpose is to develop security plans and supply companies to assist them stabilize. County officers identified that repeat referrals for abuse and neglect had been down since 2019, and at the moment are beneath the state common.

In a grim irony, the county additionally advised the state in April that “as of the writing of this report,” the county’s Division of Household and Youngsters Providers govt group “is unaware of a single instance the place a toddler was decided to be ‘unsafe’ … and was subsequently left within the care of the offending guardian.”

Two weeks later, Phoenix was lifeless.

The scrutiny on child Phoenix’s case comes amid a conflict in philosophies within the youngster welfare neighborhood in regards to the significance of conserving households collectively vs. the dangers of leaving youngsters in unsafe properties.

In an e-mail to the county Division of Household and Youngsters’s Providers workers in 2021, then-Director Dan Little defined the county’s robust dedication “to racial justice and to therapeutic the historic wounds underlying disproportionate illustration of kids of shade within the youngster welfare system.”

The shift in Santa Clara County to maintain extra youngsters with their dad and mom has led to a dramatic drop in removals within the final two years, from simply over 60 removals in August of 2020 to fewer than 20 in February of 2022, in line with the state report.

Williams, the county’s high govt who had been chief counsel within the county’s authorized workplace through the Castro case, stated that to his data, his workplace did “not typically” disagree with social staff’ recommendation to take away youngsters from unsafe properties. However he stated that social staff have raised considerations internally in regards to the company’s shift away from separating dad and mom from their youngsters.

“There’s extraordinary ardour, I feel on all sides,” Williams stated. “What are the perfect issues to do to maintain youngsters and their households?

“We wish to enhance, we wish to study, we’re deeply troubled. There’s no one I’ve talked to who isn’t extremely affected by the dying of a 3-month-old child.”