SAN JOSE – Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian railed against the California Department of Social Services on Tuesday for refusing to release an investigation of the county’s child welfare agency, calling it “mind-boggling” that a state report into the fentanyl overdose death of a San Jose infant is being kept secret.
“You can’t fix the system if you don’t know what the problem is,” Simitian said during a Board of Supervisors meeting. “And if you can’t see the report, you can’t tell what the problem was.”
He called on County Executive James Williams to press for disclosure of the report, while Supervisor Otto Lee suggested the county should consider litigation.
Simitian’s broadside came at the end of a discussion on reforms the county is already considering after a Bay Area News Group investigation found the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services disregarded numerous warnings before sending baby Phoenix Castro home with her drug-using father. The independent scrutiny by the state was expected to further drill down on the mistakes made along the way.
In 2022, state investigators had already probed Santa Clara County’s child welfare agency, revealing that the county’s mission to keep troubled families together had led to a significant drop in at-risk children removed from unsafe homes.
Supervisors blasted the county’s social services leaders last year for keeping them in the dark on that initial report.
On Tuesday, Simitian lit up after Williams told the supervisors that the state “declined the request” to release the latest report.
“It’s one of those times we shouldn’t take no for an answer,” Simitian said. The board is having “these hard conversations because we had a human tragedy that shined the light on a larger set of issues,” he said.
“I really do find it mind-boggling that the Board of Supervisors – with the responsibility to have just these kinds of hard conversations – can’t access the most relevant piece of information that prompted these conversations in the first place,” he said.
The state also denied the Bay Area News Group’s request in December for a copy of the report, stating in an email that such reviews are confidential but are intended to “help the county identify gaps in policies or procedures.”
Damion Wright, who leads the county’s child welfare agency, received a copy of the state report in early December, but was told it was confidential and couldn’t share it, even with the five elected members of the Board of Supervisors.
At a meeting in December, Williams said he hadn’t seen the report, either.
Steve Baron, a member of the county’s Child Abuse Prevention Council who attended Tuesday’s board meeting, said that asking Williams to hound the state for the secret report is problematic. The County Counsel’s office, which Williams recently led, has been criticized by the agency’s social workers for overriding their decisions to remove children from dangerous homes.
“The report may have something to say about County Counsel – it seemed to be an inherent conflict of interest,” Baron said, especially since it took Simitian to prod Williams to take further steps to obtain the state report.
Before Simitian´s questions about the state report, supervisors spent more than an hour and a half questioning leaders of the county’s child welfare system over reforms, calling for the empowerment of front-line social workers as they considered next steps.
Earlier, the Board of Supervisors spent an hour and a half discussing progress on reforms to the Department of Family and Children’s Service, prompted by baby Phoenix’s death. Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Sylvia Arenas, who are leading the calls for reform, called for a working group to better study the decisions made when removing children from dangerous homes or keeping them with their families. Arenas has been critical of the child welfare agency for focusing more on family preservation than child safety.
In documents filed ahead of the meeting, child welfare leaders revealed a dramatic increase in the number of kids removed from their parents’ care in Santa Clara County – a shift which began in November in the wake of this news organization’s coverage. Officials also noted a large uptick in the number of kids who are given court supervision while still living at home with their family.
Katie Joh, CEO of the Dependency Advocacy Center, warned supervisors to be careful with reforms.
“I want to reiterate that removing children from their families is not a guarantee of safety,” Joh said, “and often puts them at risk of further harm or long-term trauma.”
Baby Phoenix, born at Kaiser San Jose with drugs in her system, was the first of three South Bay children younger than 2 who died after ingesting a lethal dose of fentanyl within a six-month period last year. Her parents both tested positive for drugs two months before her birth and had already lost custody of their two older children after the toddlers were found sucking on triple A batteries. A social worker had sent an email to superiors warning that baby Phoenix was in mortal danger if sent home with her father.
The baby’s father David Castro is in jail awaiting trial on a felony child endangerment charge. Her mother, Emily De La Cerda, died four months after Phoenix, also from a fentanyl overdose.