Community Rallies Behind Rexroad’s Push for Reform of Child Welfare System

Matt Rexroad with his family/ Courtesy Yolo County website
Matt Rexroad with his family/ Courtesy Yolo County website

By Jerika L.H.

It is no secret that the family court system is broken. While most of us serve as onlookers, acting under the assumption that the appointed people in charge are working in the best interest of children, this expectation is unfortunately mere wishful thinking. Matt Rexroad knows firsthand the ways in which the court fails our children. Rexroad, a member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, had his foster son removed from his family after the court decided the child should be returned to his biological parents.

Currently mourning the loss of his beloved foster son, who spent two years as a member of the Rexroad household, Matt is turning tears into action as he seeks to actualize reform within the family court system. On March 22, he delivered a thorough presentation on the shortcomings of the family court at the behest of County Administrator Patrick Blacklock, who requested that the Board perform a detailed analysis on the ways in which the Yolo family courts could improve.

“I understand that people will consider that I have a conflict as the result of my experience. People might think I am acting out of bitterness. I mean,  I spent two years with that little boy and I am  disappointed that we lost our case. But these problems in the court still stand and need to be addressed, regardless of what happened.”

Matt Rexroad is a man on a mission. His thought-provoking delivery on why there should be major changes in the leadership of the county child welfare system has started the wheels in motion to galvanize change for a problem that affects so many young lives. His heartfelt plea for structural reconsideration brought to light issues that many people were oblivious to, given the discrete nature of court proceeding.

As Rexroad outlined in his presentation, the protocol for legal representation is grossly inadequate. Specifically is the manner in which court-appointed lawyers change clients in the middle of the case. “I was appalled by the way the attorneys swap places. It’s hard to go in and truly argue for your client when, 5 minutes later, you will be undoing your previous testimony.” He cites the Sacramento County family court as employing a vastly superior model of effective representation, in which one lawyer is assigned to the mother, one to the father, and another to the child respectively.

Rexroad also challenges the efficacy of the court-appointed attorneys and questions the lack of appeals made on behalf of children’s welfare. “We don’t have any indication that the children’s attorneys have been filing appropriate appeals [given the low number of appeals]. Lawyers are either happy with most of the outcomes or they’re incompetent and not actually fighting for their client. The conflict panel is comprised of private attorneys hired by the county. It’s crystal clear to me that the [lack of appeals] is a problem and I don’t even practice law.”

Rexroad’s plea has laid many issues bare and has been an informative dose of reality for the community – those who are generally far removed from the happenings within the court as a protective measure. Rexroad notes, “The biggest problem is that the community is unaware – the courtroom is private to protect the children, but this actually does a real disservice to them. I’ve been on the board for 9 years, and the only time we hear about problems is when the child dies and the privacy protection goes away. There is no neutral party overseeing things so cases are largely out of sight. We may talk about them overall but told we cannot talk in detail about them or give specifics. Even if a child is terribly abused, only vague information is given which limits our ability to be able to help the child adequately.”

Over the years, the courts have faced countless critics who have expressed concern in the fact that very little is done for children until it is too late. Rexroad agrees. “There are no  set policies or procedures for the department of child welfare. Structured decision making is done through a software program that lets you enter in data and gives a low, moderate, high, or very high, risk assessment. In Yolo County the acceptable risk of reabuse is 11%-33%, which is seen as moderate. So our county says that it’s okay to put a child back in an abusive home with a 33% chance that they will be hurt or abused again. That is unacceptable.”

The courts’ use of algorithm assessments in rendering decisions about a child’s safety, and ultimately their future, has made many wonder if the solution could lie in a drastically lowered threshold for acceptable risk. Moreover, most agree that what is most sorely needed is a lot more heart in the overall actions of the court in regard to what is in the best interest of the children – those who have already undergone potentially traumatic and damaging experiences and should find relief in the courts, not further damage.  Legalities aside, the issue remains that children’s lives are held in the balance. Are parenting classes really enough of a prerequisite in ensuring that a child will not be placed right back in the same violent or neglectful situations they were rescued from?

While Rexroad is passionate about advocating for children, he notes that he does understand that biological parents are sometimes the best option, given the case particulars. However, the court’s stance that DNA trumps a history of abuse, and it should therefore break the loving bonds that foster families make in order to serve biological parents, is misguided. Many return orders have resulted in further abuse and revictimization of the child, who is handed back to blood relatives like property, even if the child has no memories of them and has not forged any bonds with those that the court regards as family. This heartbreaking reality makes us question whether common sense should at times outweigh legal authority.

The Rexroads know this pain all too well. Yet, in the aftermath of  loss, Rexroad says he is committed to this long journey of reform, which he hopes will reinstill the mission to protect children’s safety and welfare within the courts – the entity that should act on what is best for the young lives at their mercy and not just regard them as a variable in a risk assessment equation. The community has expressed overwhelming support of his objective to bring compassion back to the court system, as well as his demand for transparent guidelines going forward.

 “The response has been amazing after Tuesday’s board meeting – many people are rooting me on. I would encourage the community to call the other members of the board of supervisors and encourage them to give their opinions on what they want to see changed. I see so many obvious changes that don’t cost taxpayers a dime but aren’t being made, or that are only now being made because I’ve drawn attention to them.”

As for the future of Yolo county court reform? Rexroad insists he will remain on the front lines to assure that no child is left unsafe or revictimized.  “I’m just getting started. This is not going away.”

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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20 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    It’s crystal clear to me that the [lack of appeals] is a problem”.

    This has been a problem dating back at least 15 years in Yolo County. The issue is not only the reluctance of lawyers to mount a rigorous appeal, but the barriers to parents pushing to have an appeal or even to fight for the well being of their child in the first place. I clearly recall being counseled not to fight for sole custody, since unless the children’s father was “for example, caught directly using drugs” in front of the children, there would be no way to fight 50/50 custody. Since I was so advised, I have heard of many equally egregious circumstances based on the following quote and the probability that I would not be believed in any event:

    Even if a child is terribly abused, only vague information is given which limits our ability to be able to help the child adequately. “

    So our county says that okay to put a child back in an abusive home with a 33% chance that they will be hurt or abused again. That is unacceptable.” And even this percentage is based on the highly subjective impressions of those who make the risk assessments. We saw first hand how well that can work out in practice in the case of the little girl drowned by her mother within the past couple of years. This was a child known to Social Services, an unstable family situation with a mother whose mental illness left her totally and admittedly unable to care for her children, who had previously asked for help and yet, on the day of the drowning, had a home assessment done by a police officer within hours of her daughter’s death. 

    So in the name of protecting the child’s “anonymity” and “privacy” we fail to actually protect the child.

    While, like Mr. Rexroad, I agree that there are times when it is best for a child to be with her biologic parents, DNA should never be “the bottom line”. The final determinant should always be the welfare of the child.

  2. ryankelly

    I understand Rexroad’s concerns, but his child custody battle (which is what this has turned into) with the County over this child is driving his efforts.  We only hear his side of the case.  We don’t hear from the mother of the child or her family or her battle to regain custody of her child.  Errors can occur both ways.  The Rexroads are ill-suited to be foster parents, because they cannot understand or are emotionally incapable to carry out the most difficult role and temporary nature of being a foster parent.  I understand that the mother is allowing visitation with the Rexroad’s, which says a lot about the mother.  This is not something she is obligated to do.

    The County needs more funding and resources to do what Rexroad is campaigning for. One item is to provide a separate lawyer for the child, which is the role that the Judge is now having to play.  Is Rexroad going to work to come up with this funding without cutting resources for other programming?  How about funding better and more effective drug treatment in Yolo County. We’ve recently heard from Probation that they don’t have the resources to handle this need.  How about better resources for struggling families – affordable housing, affordable child care?

    1. Matt Rexroad

      Ryan:

      You have some facts wrong here but I am not able to share with you the details on which ones.

      Please watch my presentation to the Board of Supervisors last Tuesday. Nothing can change the outcome of the case I was involved in….but that sort of thing should never happen again.

      The child has an attorney right now under the system.  But the way the services are provided it inadequate.

      I am open to better and more effective drug treatment but my point in the meeting last Tuesday was that the services that are often provided to the parent have no statistical proof that they are working to make the child any safer upon return.

      You can certainly have the opinion that my family is a “ill-suited to the foster parents” but there is nothing you can point to that would indicate that except an objection we made regarding the reunification of a single child after two years in foster care under a limited set of circumstances.

      Matt Rexroad

      (916) 539-0455

       

       

    2. Mark West

      ryankelly –

      Your comments regarding the Rexroad’s suitability as foster parents are completely inappropriate. They should be commended for their willingness to take on a responsibility that few in our community will accept, to care for a child that is not their own. It is not your place to judge their performance, nor is there anything to infer about their performance from the reports of their disappointment in the decision regarding their foster child.  No reasonable person can invest years in the life of a young child and not be disappointed when the relationship is terminated, for whatever reason.

      The complaints about Yolo County CWS are numerous and predate the Rexroads involvement, and we as a community are fortunate that Matt Rexroad is using his position as County Supervisor to shine a light on those problems.

      1. ryankelly

        I never suggested that the Rexroads are not good foster parents – willing to take on the care of another’s child and provide for that child in every way – but they may be emotionally ill-suited evidenced by the extreme sense of loss they are feeling when its time to return the child.  I’m concerned how this is affecting their other children, witnessing their distraught parents along with their own personal loss.   I have only heard the Rexroad’s side of the story, but I suspect that there is an equally heartbroken other side of the story that we are not hearing.

        I remember a family in Davis that had their three children removed by CPS after their 3 year old child had made alarming comments at his nursery school and the family’s heartbreaking battle over 18 months to recover their children.  They also had the community rallying behind them and CPS was heavily criticized then also.

        1. Mark West

          ryankelly:  “they may be emotionally ill-suited evidenced by the extreme sense of loss…”

          In my experience, emotionally well-suited foster parents feel an ‘extreme sense of loss’ when a long-term foster child leaves their home, regardless of the reason. In fact, it is exactly those feelings of attachment to the child, that make them good foster parents in the first place. Again, your comments are completely inappropriate, and I can only assume, ill-informed. In my opinion, you owe the Rexroad family a sincere apology.

          I remember a family in Davis that had their three children removed by CPS…and the family’s heartbreaking battle over 18 months to recover their children. 

          This is the section of Child Welfare Services, that, in my opinion, needs the greatest amount of cleansing light. The simple truth is that there is little to no outside oversight, and a complete lack of due process when dealing with this side of the Child Welfare system. I hope that Matt will shine the light here as well.

           

        2. ryankelly

          Mark, They engaged in a child custody battle with the mother, hiring their own lawyers and private detectives.  I don’t believe it is appropriate for a foster parent to do this.

          I apologize to the Rexroads for suggesting that they were emotionally ill-suited to take on the role of fostering a child, but I could see no other explanation for their actions.  Their concerns may be based on valid fears about the child’s safety and maybe that is what Matt’s public campaign is about.

          I don’t think Matt realizes how difficult it is to get your children back once they are removed.  As I described in my example, children have also been removed from their families in Yolo County by the Juvenile Court and Family Court and it is equally heartbreaking and difficult for these families to get them back and get the Court out of their lives.  The Vanguard has recently written about mothers who have been arrested and jailed or issued warrants for taking their children away.  A six year old child lost her mother and was handed over to a father she didn’t know because the mother obeyed ICE’s demands that she leave the country and the father had not demonstrated interest in supporting the child or taking any steps to help the mother be allowed to remain in the country.  Right now we have a mother refusing to return from Europe despite the DA’s demands who claims that she is acting out of concern for her and her children’s safety.

        3. zaqzaq

          ryankelly,

          If the motive behind the Rexroads contesting the reunification of their foster child with the biological parent is the safety of the child then I strongly support their investment in time and resources to contest placing the child with the biological parent(s).  In the piece he seems to be concerned that a 33% risk of future abuse is acceptable to CPS and the court.  I would tend agree with his point that 33% is to high.

           

  3. Tia Will

     The Rexroads are ill-suited to be foster parents, because they cannot understand or are emotionally incapable to carry out the most difficult role and temporary nature of being a foster parent.”

    What our society fails to understand is that it is equally true that many biologic parents are emotionally incapable to carry our the most difficult role of a parent, namely being consistently willing and able to place the needs of the entirely dependent child above their own. In our society we define parenthood in terms of biology and ownership as opposed to as consistent nurturance.

    While I know nothing of the particulars of this case, neither the suitability of the Rexroads, the suitability of the mother, the suitability of any other family members, or the ordeal of this particular child, my 30 + years in medicine, in a closely related field have allowed me to see just how skewed our Family Court system is towards the ownership model of parenthood over the nurturance model which puts the well being of the child first.

  4. Anon

    Having been on both sides of the court system, the real problem is the notion of reunification being the ultimate goal.  The court system and the state legislatures have deemed it is in the best interests of the child to be with his/her biological parent(s).  The court generally does not consider how many false starts are made by a dilatory parent to reunify.  It matters not if the parent has to go into drug rehab 10 times in 10 years – just relocate the child to another foster parent so the child doesn’t get too attached.  Because ultimately the child will be better off with the biological parent, according to society (as evidenced by the standards of “best interest of the child”).

    The same exact scenario plays out in divorce court.  The court system and the state legislatures have deemed visitation by both parents to be in the best interests of the child.  It matters not if one parent seriously neglects or verbally abuses the child – one “has to take risks in life” was what one judge told me after conceding my ex-husband used extremely poor judgment in neglecting his children (left them alone as toddlers on live train tracks as just one of a myriad of examples of neglect/abuse).

    IMO if society would agree to the following, the best interests of the child would be better served:

    1.  A parent that gives up a child to foster care has one year to get their act together unless there are extraordinary circumstances, otherwise the child can be adopted out.  To allow, for instance, drug addicted parents to continually go in and out of rehab like a revolving door over a period of years while leaving the child in foster care and in limbo is not in the best interests of the child.

    2. A divorced parent that seriously neglects or verbally/physically abuses a child will have only supervised visitation until and when the parent can show the neglect/abuse will not be repeated.

    You can change all the legal procedure you want, and it won’t make a bit of  difference, unless and until the standards for “best interest of the child” are changed to truly reflect what IS in the best interests of the child – which is a stable, caring family structure, that promotes healthy growth. Kids that are moved from one foster parent to another every two years to discourage the child from becoming too attached to the foster parent for the purpose of reunifying the child with birth parents that repeatedly cannot get their act together is not in the best interests of the child.  Kids that are subjected to a neglectful or abusive divorced parent during unsupervised visitation is not in the best interests of the child.

    The irony is that if parents were held to a standard that truly was in the best interests of the child, and held accountable for their bad behavior, more of these troubled parents would clean up their act and do it a lot quicker.  Because these troubled parents are given way too many chances without any consequences, children are forced to bear the brunt of their parents’ irresponsible behavior.  These same children grow up with all sorts of long term scars from their less than ideal experiences.  Some thrive, some don’t, but what a shame.  A crying shame.

  5. skeptical

    The legal system is corrupt and operated by corrupt participants.  The only solution is to replace the legal system with a justice system, and to place all authority (on questions of fact and law) in the hands of a jury.  The jury should also have the authority to review, remediate and hold all parties accountable on civil and criminal grounds.  Such a system will serve the best interests of children and families.  The current system destroys children, it destroys families and family relationships, and it destroys the resources needed by children and families.

    1. Anon

      Judging some of the outcomes of decisions made by juries, do you really want to go there?  The O.J. Simpson case comes to mind, the grand jury that refused to indict a police officer for killing an unarmed man, etc.

      The real problem lies with society’s view of what is in the best interests of the child.  Right now by statute, biological parental rights trump the true best interests of the child.

  6. bpakpour

    I would never presume to know what happened in Mr. Rexrod’s case. As a lawyer, I always tell my clients that every case is different and was decided on those facts. As a father, I couldn’t imagine going through what his family did.

    As a family law attorney, I did want to highlight some inaccuracies so that the perceptions one might obtain are at least improved.

    First, there is a BIG difference between family law and juvenile law, and the line between the two seems blurred here. In family court, the county is not a party, and litigants face each other either with or without the assistance of counsel. It is up to them to hire an attorney if they want to. Family court is also open to the public.

    In juvenile court, the courtroom is closed, however all parties are appointed an attorney. This includes the county, mother, father (sometimes more than one father), and children.

    Foster parents are not appointed counsel and do not have a right to be present at the hearing typically.

    Also, attorneys in juvenile court DO NOT switch sides in the middle of a case. I’m not sure where this idea comes from. Attorneys do switch sides between cases, i.e., attorney for mom in one case might be attorney for dad in the next, or attorney for child in the one after that. But that could happen in any area of law. As a family law attorney I might represent mom one day, dad the next. Not sure what the issue there might be.

    I’m not taking sides in this debate but I felt it might be helpful that casual readers have the accurate information.

    -Brian Pakpour

    (530) 302-5444

    1. Mark West

      “Foster parents are not appointed counsel and do not have a right to be present at the hearing typically.”

      Foster Parents are not a party to the hearing, so are not represented by counsel, but at least in Yolo County, they are generally welcome at the hearings pertaining to the children in their care.

    2. Vxtr

      Hi Brian,

      Yes, you’re definitely correct that family court and juvenile court are totally different things. I agree that casual readers should have the accurate information and thank you for clarifying. Lack of information and transparency is a major reason why children are left vulnerable. Thank you for your part in this effort and your passion for justice!

      “Foster parents are not appointed counsel and do not have a right to be present at the hearing typically.”

      Please allow me to provide a clarification based on the Welfare and Institutions Code as well as the California Rules of Court. My concern is that information provided by a legal professional will be accepted by the casual reader without question. With children’s lives at stake, we should all know the right thing to do and then do so unflinchingly.

      Correction, foster parents DO have the right to be present at court hearings and even to provide input that they feel are vital to the child’s care and best interest:

      16010.4.(b) Foster parents are one of the most important sources of information about the children in their care. Courts, lawyers, and social workers should have the benefit of caregivers’ perceptions. Both federal and state law recognize the importance of foster parents’ participation in juvenile court proceedings. Federal law requires that foster parents and other caregivers receive expanded opportunities for notice, the right to participate in dependency court review and permanency hearings, and the right to communicate concerns to the courts. State law similarly provides that caregivers may submit their concerns to courts in writing.

      True, foster parents are not appointed council. That said, foster parents and caregivers are able to file for De Facto parenting status and hire their own council to represent the best interest of the child. This application process is free and very straight-forward. (On a side note, in Yolo county there seems to be a stigma attached to filing for De Facto status and CWS actively and unofficially discourages this. However, it is important to understand that De Facto does NOT give ANY parenting rights to foster parents or allow them more power over the child; it simply allows a foster parent to advocate for the child by retaining council and presenting evidence to the court. Nothing more.)

      Below is a summary of foster parent / caregiver rights and responsibilities that will hopefully serve to inform interested parties:

      * Notice of all review and permanency hearings, to be served at least 15 days before the hearing. Welfare and Institutions Code §§293(a)(6), 293(c)16010.4 (f)(1)California Rules of Court § 5.534(n) 

      * Attend all review hearings, submit any evidence deemed relevant to the Court in writing. Welfare and Institutions Code §§293(f)16010.4 (f)(2)California Rules of Court § 5.534(n) 

      * Receive a written summary of the social worker’s recommendations, at least 10 days prior to the scheduled hearing. Welfare and Institutions Code §§366.21(c)California Rules of Court § 5.534(n)

      * Receive a copy (included with the above) of the JV-290 Caregiver Information Form, which allows the caregiver to provide information directly to the court. Welfare and Institutions Code §§366.21(c)16010.4 (f)(3)California Rules of Court § 5.534(n)

      * File with the Court a JV-290 Caregiver Information Form. The Court shall consider this report and recommendations prior to determining any disposition regarding the child. Welfare and Institutions Code §366.21(d)California Rules of Court § 5.534(n)

  7. bpakpour

    Thank you to both of you and you are both correct. I responded to this post on my iPhone and did not have an opportunity to explain foster parent rights in detail.

    In fact, you will find in Yolo County the court is very open to hearing from all interested parties. I once represented grandparents who’d driven from 1000 miles away because they just learned their son’s parental rights might be terminated. The judge was very patient and gave me and them ample opportunity to be heard, even though, under the law, he did not have to.

    My point was merely to address the inaccuracies in the piece above regarding the law. Again, ALL parties (mom, dad(s), child(ren)) are appointed attorneys at the inception of the case.

    Those attorneys DO NOT switch sides in the middle of a case. That would not just be absurd … it would violate the California Rules of Professional Conduct and Business and Professions Code.

    Those attorneys do represent different parties in different cases, but that is normal. I represent fathers and mothers in family law cases. Landlord/tenant attorneys represent landlords and tenants in different cases. Probate attorneys sometimes represent one side or another of an estate, or conservatorship, or guardianship.

    To be very clear: I am NOT taking sides in Mr. Rexroad’s case. I just want to make sure that, when evaluating his case, individuals have accurate information from which to do so. This is an understandably difficult topic for many to appreciate.

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