Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $999,999 settlement with a mother whose two daughters were removed from her custody when their baby brother died.
Details from court documents describe how employees of the county’s child protection agency removed the children and then forged documents to suggest the mother, from the Crenshaw/Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, had voluntarily signed off on placing her children with the county.
The custody case was never brought before a judge at the county’s Juvenile Dependency Court.
“This was legally in limbo the whole time,” said Luke Jackson, the mother’s attorney. “Usually there’s an emergency hearing. This should have gone before a county court and had a judge’s eyes on it.”
In October of 2012, Lisa Castillo found her 3-month-old son lying in his crib, not breathing. The infant was brought to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The next day, Rihana Acklin, a social worker with the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), questioned Castillo and family members about the boy. Five hours later, Acklin informed Castillo of her decision to remove the two older children from her custody.
It would take 217 days until the sisters were sent back home.
The 3-month-old died three days later of undetermined causes. According to documents from a lawsuit filed by Castillo in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles, doctors informed Acklin there were no signs of abuse or neglect, and they suspected the child died from sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
Castillo’s attorney said the children were removed because she was “judged as a second-class citizen” due to drug use many years prior, which Castillo had voluntarily disclosed to Acklin.
In a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change, Neil Zanville of the DCFS Office of Public Affairs said that when making risk assessments “social workers consider prior drug use and probation in making recommendations, if they have a direct bearing on child safety.”
In court, Castillo’s attorneys argued her civil rights were violated, pointing to the removal of the children based solely on her background and a series of actions by DCFS staff that kept Castillo uninformed of her rights and circumvented the juvenile court system as her children were kept away from her.
The settlement was approved by a unanimous vote of county supervisors on November 15, and is one of a string of similar county cases wherein plaintiffs like Castillo successfully argue that child protective services are removing and detaining children without consent or probable cause.
In April, four DCFS social workers were charged with falsifying public records and child abuse for their roles in the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in 2013. The Chronicle of Social Change reported in June that two county claims boards recommended that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors pay $2.63 million to settle the claim.
In November, a Los Angeles County jury awarded $3.1 million in a judgment against two DCFS social workers to a mother whose 15-month-old was removed from her custody for seven years. The jury found that the County of Los Angeles has “an official custom and/or practice of seizing children from their parents without a warrant, failed to enact an official policy or procedure when it should have done so, and knew, because of a pattern of similar violations that its official customs or practices were likely to result in the violation of parents’ rights to be free of unwarranted seizures of their children.”
In a May 23 decision granting summary judgment to end the case in favor of Castillo, Central District of California Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell ruled that Castillo’s civil rights had been violated when her children were removed and continued to be kept away from her.
Judge O’Connell cited a lack of any evidence to justify removing the children, and ruled that the continued separation hinged on a forged document filed by Acklin claiming that Castillo had voluntarily agreed to the removal of her children.
DCFS employees “went so far as to fabricate the ‘Voluntary’ Placement Agreement in their DCFS case file upon which they rely to claim Ms. Castillo ‘consented’ to the detention of her children in the middle of the night,” Judge O’Connell wrote.
Acklin’s brief investigation, which included questioning the two older children without their mother’s consent, uncovered no evidence of abuse, the judge concluded. Yet Acklin told Castillo the children needed to be removed until she could determine what caused the baby’s death.
The day after the children were removed, Castillo called Acklin requesting to be reunited with her family and also spoke to a supervisor, Erasmo Aguilar. Both reaffirmed the children would not be immediately returned, and promised to place the girls with relatives if they consented to background checks.
According to court documents, when Castillo expressed concern about the length of that process, the supervisor told Castillo “you are nobody special and neither are your girls.”
Later in the afternoon after Castillo spoke to supervisor Aguilar, police questioned Castillo and searched her home, but also turned up no evidence of abuse.
The children were placed with relatives and Castillo continued to call requesting their return. Aguilar restated that the children wouldn’t be returned until the baby’s medical condition had been determined, and Acklin added that Castillo needed to submit to a drug test.
In addition, Acklin told Castillo a court date to resolve the situation had been cancelled because it wasn’t necessary to see a judge.
Instead, DCFS staff, including Acklin and Aguilar, held a “team meeting” with Castillo. Castillo’s lawyer was denied entry to the meeting and told that attorneys were not permitted to be present, according to Judge O’Connell’s notes.
“This happens pretty frequently since social workers don’t like having attorneys around for parents,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty common to try to keep attorneys out.”
In an emailed statement, Zanville said that “Per DCFS policy, attorneys and their agents generally do not attend TDMs [team decision-making meetings]. When there is a specific request by the youth/family member or a Court order for an attorney or attorney’s representative to participate, the social worker consults with a lawyer from the Office of County Counsel regarding how to proceed.”
In the meeting, held eight days after the children were removed, Aguilar accused Castillo of being a drug addict and stated that to get her children back she would need to complete a drug program and classes for parenting, domestic violence, and grief and loss.
Fearful of her children being placed in foster care or losing them permanently, Castillo alleged she was forced to sign a “voluntary placement agreement” at the meeting that consented to their placement in the custody of a relative.
The judge’s ruling states that Acklin, Aguilar and two others attempted to cover up the removal and continued detention of the children by backdating the document to when the children were originally removed and signing off on a forgery.
Over subsequent months, Castillo repeatedly called Acklin, social worker Virginia Espinoza and supervisor Aguilar, pleading for the return of her children. According to DCFS policy, these requests should have voided any voluntary agreement, resulting in the return of the children.
The voluntary agreement itself informs parents that they “can withdraw this request or terminate placement at any time.”
If social workers deem a voluntary case a high-enough risk they can formalize it by filing a petition with the Juvenile Dependency Court. Instead, DCFS staff told Castillo they needed to follow the case plan and she would have to wait until police closed their investigation.
It wasn’t until April that police closed their investigation, finding no wrongdoing. The children were returned in May.
After nearly a year of separation, the children were traumatized, according to Judge O’Connell’s notes. One ran away from home and cut herself, while the other refused to leave her mother’s side in fear she would be forced to leave again.
In a motion filed for Castillo, Jackson noted a number of examples in this case where DCFS staff ignored official policy permitting lawyers into meetings and allowing parents to withdraw their voluntary consent for the removal of their children anytime.
Jackson also cited six other recent cases filed in state or federal court pointing to a pattern of civil rights violations within DCFS, wherein children were removed from their families without evidence of danger, records were falsified or children continued to be detained without cause or consent.
Additionally, he referenced an investigative report on the department’s “Recurring Systemic Issues” from 2012, which called for widespread reform in DCFS to prevent these situations. Recommendations in that report included focusing on competent supervision and management, rather than a reliance on policy manuals, to ensure the protection of children and families.
While Castillo’s lawyers argued that DCFS policy is so regularly ignored or implementation is “so deficient that the policy itself is a repudiation of constitutional rights,” the legal settlement stated that DCFS had “relevant policies and procedures in place at the time of the incident” and would continue to assist its staff in providing appropriate services.
In a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change, Zanville of the Office of Public Affairs noted a number of new training initiatives designed to support staff in conducting investigations, including an experiential training program in a simulation lab where new social workers role-play and receive immediate feedback from experts. The new social workers also receive training on child maltreatment identification, interviewing, fact gathering and their legal duties.
Zanville also noted the importance of the proper implementation of the Core Practice Model, a set of best practices developed by the state departments of health care services and social services describing “how and what is done” when coordinating across the child welfare and mental health systems.
The model, according to Zanville, is focused on “engaging and empowering families to have their voice and choices heard, to participate in the identification of their own underlying needs, and to identify and design their own support systems. By understanding a family’s story, our workers are better able to craft and support individualized service plans to help families heal.”
“The ability to engage with clients facilitates a complete and thorough investigation,” Zanville said. “If you’re not trying to understand the client, you’re unable to solicit critical information that can help keep children safe.”
Carl Finer is a freelance writer focusing on education, community development, running, and child welfare.