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'Unsafe In Foster Care' Investigates How A System To Keep Kids Safe Can Harm Them


How do you keep children safe when a parent is surviving domestic violence? And are foster parents scrutinized as much as birth parents are when it comes to the well-being of these children? These are just some of the very difficult decisions facing the child welfare system almost every day. And these decisions disproportionately impact Black, Latino and Native American families. Reporter Deepa Fernandes has been investigating foster care deaths in LA County. I spoke with her about her audio documentary for Latino USA called "Unsafe In Foster Care." And just a warning for listeners - this conversation does include details about cases of domestic and child abuse.

Deepa Fernandes, welcome.

DEEPA FERNANDES: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So Deepa, I just want to start from the very beginning. Your documentary follows the story of Leah Garcia. She's a mother of two. Can you just tell us a little bit about her and how her son, Joseph Chacon, ends up in the foster care system?

FERNANDES: Sure. You know, Leah Garcia is in some ways not any different to many of us mothers. She has a daughter who she adores. She's a very playful mother. She has a second child, Joseph. And at this point, she is with Joseph's father. And this partner starts to get abusive. And it's not something Leah has ever experienced in her life. And she describes it as the abuse just kind of crept up on her.


LEAH GARCIA: I feel like he, like, eased into the way he treated me. I feel like when people, like, slowly ease into treating you a certain type of way, they kind of manipulate you a lot. And I feel like that's what happened.

FERNANDES: When the abuse got bad, she called the police. But that's really where she came into the crosshairs of the Department of Children and Family Services here in LA County - DCFS, as it's known. If police or teachers or welfare workers see what they believe is abuse or neglect, and in this case, if children are present during an incident of domestic violence and the police are called, they're required to notify DCFS.

CHANG: Right. And then the child welfare system determined that there was a failure to protect Joseph, and that is why he was eventually removed and placed into the foster care system.

FERNANDES: You know, when you look at it from the perspective of the child welfare authorities, they really have to take care of children. Domestic violence can get very dangerous.

CHANG: Well, then I'm curious. When do kids get to stay with a parent when that parent is being abused in a relationship?

FERNANDES: I think the only cases where that happens, Ailsa, is when social workers deem that the parent who is the survivor, who is not doing anything to hurt her children, actually has a safety plan. You know, the restraining order's really a big one. Sometimes women don't actually understand. As one of the attorneys in the story said, it's the gold standard. Get yourself a restraining order. That shows to us that you're protecting your child. But how you actually do that is complicated, and you have to figure all of that out on your own.

CHANG: And unfortunately, the tragedy here is that Joseph ends up dying while he is in the care of the foster care system. And what you found, unexpectedly, was a story about another child, Draco Ford, a baby who died in the custody of this same foster family. Can you just very briefly tell us about what happened to Draco?

FERNANDES: So Draco Ford was removed from his mother when he was just over a month old. And he was placed with the same foster family where Joseph was and ended up dying. And, you know, I got the 911 calls. I asked for them all from the residence where Joseph died. And it was so shocking to get two 911 calls and hear that it was also for a foster baby and then to see in the autopsy that a second baby had died. And, you know, all we really could go on was that this little baby, it appeared, had died of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. He was found unresponsive in his crib by the foster mother.

CHANG: And how did the agency here, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS for short, how did they explain what happened in the deaths of Joseph Chacon and Draco Ford?

FERNANDES: You know, DCFS was very responsive to all my requests. They were very quickly able to provide me with numbers. They would not talk about any particular case. They are bound by privacy laws. What they could tell me was what their protocol is. So say there is a death in a foster home of a foster child or there is an injury. They err on the side, let's just take those children out of that home and place them somewhere else while we determine what happened.

Unfortunately, what I found that happened in this case, Ailsa, was that a decision was made very quickly that this was a SIDS death and that it wasn't the caregiver's fault at all so that the rest of the children could remain in her care. And I think that's where some scrutiny is required. Foster parents are put through a very rigorous screening upfront. I think what may not stand up to so much scrutiny is whether foster parents - once they have the children, I'm not sure that that same scrutiny holds up when social workers have such high caseloads.

CHANG: We also mention that a disproportionate number of the kids who are in foster care are Black, Latinx or Native American. Can you just tell us briefly why is that?

FERNANDES: Ailsa, the reality is it's been like that for decades. But what is new is that it's not changing. And today, we are well aware of these largely disproportionate numbers. One might say that it starts by the people who call in with reports of child abuse. And once there is a report of child abuse, then the system kicks into gear to decide, should we go out and investigate that? And a lot of those calls disproportionately are about Black and Latino and Native American children here in LA County.

CHANG: Right. I mean, you find that in many cases, families are being penalized for simply being poor, right?

FERNANDES: And that's one of the big factors here. Poverty is a really big factor. You know, often, to some social workers, poverty might look like neglect.

CHANG: Yeah.

FERNANDES: DCFS will say, well, we're training our social workers. We're putting them through anti-bias and cultural awareness trainings. But is it enough?

CHANG: Right. Well, then you end this documentary with a voice from outside of California, a mother in New York who's calling for the whole child welfare system to be abolished altogether.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What would it look like if we instead supported the family who we said was not rising to a level that we wish they would rise to in caring for their child, if they didn't lack a coat because instead of giving money to a foster parent, you bought a damn coat or you bought a bag of groceries, even if you had to do that consistently for a moment?

CHANG: Tell us more about that point of view.

FERNANDES: There was a call that I was seeing and hearing about to abolish Child Protective Services. You know, I think this movement of mothers - and it is mothers - in New York City took inspiration to say, you know, maybe in some cases and in many cases, this is not working. Why are we keeping on doing the same thing? The solution might be to actually not take children at all, but to find other ways of intervening and providing support.

CHANG: That was Deepa Fernandes. She reported "Unsafe In Foster Care" for the public radio show and podcast Latino USA. Both parts are out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE BRUBAKER'S "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.