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.”