How overdose death of 3-month-old is prompting child welfare reform in Santa Clara County

Lauren Martinez Image
Wednesday, December 20, 2023
Overdose death of baby is prompting child welfare reform in South Bay
Months after baby Phoenix Castro died of ingesting meth and fentanyl, the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors is officially pushing to improve the Department of Family and Children Services.

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- The Santa Clara Board of Supervisors is officially pushing for child welfare reforms, months after a three-month-old baby died of an opioid overdose.

Phoenix Castro died when she was three months old.

The Santa Clara County DA's office said on May 13th, San Jose Police found her unconscious.

An autopsy report said she died of ingesting meth and fentanyl.

In October, the DA charged Phoenix's father with felony child neglect and drug possession.

Her death has highlighted not only the drug crisis but also the framework of children's services.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting.

Officials from the County Department of Family and Children Services, parents, legal advocates for children, and social workers shared what needs to improve.

MORE: SJ parents charged with murder after toddler dies of fentanyl overdose inside home, DA says

Daniel Little is the Director of County Social Services.

"Phoenix Castro should be alive today. And making sure we evolve our system to better protect children like her is why our discussion today is so important," Little said.

Damian Wright, the Director of the Department of Family and Children Services, presented their process and data to the board.

Wright talked about the 24/7 hotline and response time frame.

The hotline, 833-SCC-KIDS, is a direct line to the county's child abuse hotline.

Wright said this year 28,600 calls were made to the hotline for various reasons.

Approximately 10,000 were reports of abuse and neglect, and 6,000 of those calls were responded to in person.

A list of speakers preceded the presentation from DFCS.

Nick Birchard, Chief Probation officer, said even during the most challenging cases DFCS always comes to the table to put the child first and what's best for the families.

"An area that I see as an opportunity for both of us, and certainly everybody in this room, and everyone knows that the expanding of the continuum care placement options available to youth, especially to youth with high mental health needs, there are no local short term residential care facilities for our kids with high-end needs," Birchard said.

VIDEO: 2023 is SF's deadliest year ever for drug overdoses; solution to crisis may be in wastewater

Health officials say wastewater in San Francisco is now being tested for illicit drugs, without individual tracking, as a record 752 people have died from drug overdoses in the city so far this year.

Lorena Briones is a Social Workers and representative of SEIU S21.

"This is a public health crisis, and we need to partner up with public health nurses when we are investigating referrals of severe substances such as fentanyl and methamphetamines," Briones said.

Supervisors Sylvia Arenas and Cindy Chavez authored a board referral that calls for child welfare reforms.

"I think the emphasis has been on keeping family together and while I think that's really important I also think it's important to keep our children safe," Arenas said.

Supervisor Arenas would like the DFCS to see the board as a partner.

During the meeting, Arenas asked the Director for the County of Social Services why the board was not aware of a state investigation from 2022.

"What the state did is they came to the county and had an investigation, talked to different stakeholders, different social workers, parents- just a variety of folks and then developed a report that reflected all of the concerns as well as recommendations," Arenas said. "That report was produced and ready for our county back in February, but you know the Board of Supervisors weren't privy to that report because the Department of Family and Children Services kept it confidential even though there's no reason to keep it confidential."

Daniel Little said going back - he wished they would've shared the report with the board.

"I think we were waiting for a response back from the state after we'd answer their questions," Little said. "So that was the reason but again -we should've shared when we originally received that so we could have had that dialogue many, many months ago."

After a four-hour meeting of presentations, questions, and public comment, the board unanimously passed a motion to reform DFCS.

"I've asked for a work plan to be developed in February," Arenas said. "I've also asked for us to consider maybe removing the Department of Family and Children Services out of the bigger department which is Social Services so that we can have more direct communication."

During the public comment portion, baby Phoenix's great-uncle said a few words.

"My heart is broken in many ways listening to the folks who are suffering here -with their families," Morillo said.

Ed Morillo said baby Phoenix and her mother Emily Delacerda, who also died of a fentanyl overdose in September, live on in their hearts.

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