Monday’s testimony by Yolo County Social Worker Valerie Zeller in the case of Samantha Green was nothing short of startling – even as we already suspected that CPS (now referred to as CWS, Child Welfare Services) had failed in its duties to protect baby Justice Rees.
Ms. Zeller testified about her decision to return the baby back into the home of his parents, even though he was born testing positive for methamphetamine in his system.
At first, according to reports in the Vanguard, Samantha Green denied her drug usage and claimed she only tried drugs once. Then she was more forthcoming when confronted with test results, but still minimized her drug usage.
While Ms. Zeller placed a protective hold on the baby, she allowed it to remain with the parents.
CPS was worried about the baby not being in the home very often, about the housing situation, and about Frank Rees’ unwillingness to use CalWorks and food stamps. Ms. Zeller testified that, when talking about drug use, Ms. Green seemed to understand the consequences of daily methamphetamine use and the dangers it presents to a child.
She also testified that Ms. Green was also engaged in the conversation, didn’t suffer from decompensation or have illusions about meth, and was willing and open to confront problems. On the other hand, Mr. Rees seemed disengaged, disinterested, and preoccupied, like he was above the situation and had other things to do.
However, following the February 9 meeting, Ms. Zeller did not meet with the family again until the day that Ms. Green went missing.
Valerie Zeller testified that, while Samantha Green said the drug use was a one-time thing, “we knew from the test results and history that probably wasn’t the case.” What seems even more concerning here is that this was not simply a judgment mistake by the social worker, but rather a function of policy for the department.
She testified that heavy drug use was not a sufficient reason for removing the baby from the home. She explained, “Drug use is not enough (of a) just reason to remove a child. I usually use the example of how many functional alcoholics we have … we have to look at a lot of different factors.”
However, there is reason to point blame on Ms. Zeller. She testified that she assessed risks for children on almost a daily basis for seven and a half years, but she never ordered Green for random drug testing. She said it may have been because of the overwhelming size of the caseload, and that there were other more urgent cases that took priority; statistically, families with a newborn generally make it through their first week.
That is simply an alarming answer. It seems to represent a miscalculation on the part of the department. We have no way to assess, of course, the other cases, but what we know is that this case ended in the death of the baby whereas the other cases do not appear to have so ended.
It will, of course, be up to a jury to decide what level of responsibility the mother has for the death of her child. The trial is ongoing.
However, the county needs to start assessing the entire child welfare system, which appears more and more to be broken.
In our view, the procedures for removing a child need to be revised. The mother in this case was known to have been using meth during her pregnancy – in fact, she even took steps to both lie about her usage and minimize it. The baby tested positive for meth at birth and had documented signs of withdrawal.
Moreover, given the concerns about the mother, the social worker was actually more concerned about the father, who seemed among other things to be impatient, distracted, unengaged, and more concerned about his own convenience than providing for his family.
“The father of the baby was using the (hospital) facilities like a hotel — sleeping more than the mother and even taking showers there,” Ms. Zeller would testify in court.
Furthermore, there were concerns about the other four children in the house.
What is striking is the inconsistency of CPS policies. We have personally seen children removed from homes and placed with relatives and foster families for far less. So why was a much more egregious and dysfunctional situation overlooked in this case?
We figure this will trigger more county scrutiny. County Supervisor Matt Rexroad, who has been leading the way toward investigation and reforms of the system after his own foster child was given back to the birth family, commented on the Vanguard article, “This article makes my heart hurt.”
Hopefully this will bring more fuel and energy to Mr. Rexroad’s actions.
An April article in the Daily Democrat quotes the supervisor as stating, “This whole system is hidden from public view — and the secrecy is bad for the children it fails to serve. I did not know about any of this stuff until I became a foster parent…”
This is a huge problem with the system. CPS and especially individual cases are guarded by confidentiality laws. It is difficult to get records related to those cases, which make it difficult for news and other investigators to document problems.
The very laws that are supposed to protect the privacy of the children end up covering up for the wrongdoing and shortcoming of the system.
The Daily Democrat article quoted Bill Grimm, senior attorney with Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, who told the paper that “CPS agencies throughout the state make the same mistakes over and over. He recommended a legislative oversight hearing to improve the quality of investigations.”
“The state gathers data about how quickly the agency responds to a report of suspected abuse, but this is a very poor measure,” said Mr. Grimm, who has researched similar fatal abuse cases. “It tells us nothing about the quality of the investigation. Until adequate criteria are adopted and applied to assessing the quality of investigations, these tragedies will not end.”
This is a problem in the Green case in particular. The social worker mentioned that they were impacted by a heavy caseload – which is something the county can control if they look into it. She mentioned a policy for not removing the baby based on heavy drug use. But she seems to have ignored other warning signs that, at least in retrospect, led to the baby’s death – and that includes the general dysfunction of the father with the mother attempting to use the baby to regain his attention.
Hindsight is 20/20, but given that this is the loss of a young and innocent life, we need to make sure to build in sufficient protection to protect the children.
What is all the more interesting is the juxtaposition between the passive actions of CPS in this case and the aggressive actions in the Claire Benoit case, where there is no evidence that there is a problem with the care of the children.
As doctor and Vanguard board member Tia Will noted, “An interesting juxtaposition of cases. On the one hand, we have a social service worker in the Green case citing case overload as a potential reason for not having followed up on the well being of Baby Justice in a timely manner for adequate protection. A situation that I am sure from professional experience is true.
“And yet, we have the Benoit case in which personal assessment in court is being actively pursued including court and social service time is being used when other means such as Skype or perhaps remote and/or surrogate assessment of the well being of the children could be considered.”
We think it is time for the entire Board of Supervisors to do an extensive external audit of their Child Welfare Services.
—David M. Greenwald reporting