Unsafe In Foster Care

In this two-part investigation, we look into Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the largest child welfare agency in the U.S., and what happens when the system that is meant to protect these children falls short—and even puts their lives at risk.

When domestic violence unfolds in a home, how can you protect the children living there? Is it best to remove the children from that dangerous environment, or is it best for their well-being to stay with the non-violent parent? These are very difficult decisions to make. Decisions that the child welfare system is making every day. 

There are more than 670 thousand children in the foster care system in the United States—and they’re disproportionately Black and Latino/a. 

In some cases, the removal of children is the result of mothers who are experiencing domestic violence and calling the police looking for safety, like Leah Garcia did. But her calls to the police triggered the involvement of LA’s Department of Children and Family Services. Social workers concluded that Leah wasn’t able to protect her children, and so her 3-year-old daughter went with her father, and her 5-month-old baby, Joseph Chacón, the son she had with her abusive partner, was placed with a foster care family.

What happened after Joseph was removed by county authorities became a mother’s worst nightmare: the same system that was supposed to keep her child safe proved to be the biggest threat to his well-being. 

“Unsafe In Foster Care” also delves into the systemic problems of the child welfare system and its racist practices. The number of Latino children removed by DCFS in 2020 amounted to almost 60 percent of all children removed, similar to the number of Latino children in the county’s child population. Yet for Black children, who make up only 7.4 percent percent of LA County’s child population, they are almost one quarter of all the children removed. 

When it comes to white children, they are almost 17 percent of the county’s child population, and last year of all the children removed, around 12 percent were white, five percentage points lower than their prevalence in the population.

Illustration by Alex Charner.

In episode one, Leah Garcia, 22, thought she was doing the right thing by calling the police when her partner turned violent. But her 911 calls triggered the involvement of LA’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and, after social workers assessed the situation, the county decided to remove the children from her home because they concluded that she was unable to protect them. Leah’s baby, Joseph, the son she had with her abusive partner, was placed with a foster care family. Leah struggled to see her 5-month-old baby weekly because Joseph was placed in a home that was almost two hours away from her. She soon started worrying about his well-being. After Joseph ended up at the hospital with a broken arm, the baby was placed in the second foster home. But there, he didn’t find safety either.

Illustration by Alex Charner.

In episode two, while looking into what happened the night Joseph Chacón died, reporter Deepa Fernandes found something shocking buried in the autopsy records: another baby, Draco Ford, had passed away in the same foster home two months earlier. In this episode, we talk to experts who raise questions about Joseph’s death, and also why weren’t the foster children, including Joseph, immediately removed after Draco died? We also delve into the difficult decisions social workers have to make and the systemic problems of the foster care system in the U.S. as a whole.

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Deepa Fernandes is an early childhood reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.

9 thoughts on “Unsafe In Foster Care

  1. I could never imagine that the system that is set in place to protect children would work this way. This story was horrifying, heartbreaking, and left me speechless.

  2. Grateful to Deepa Fernandes and NPR for spotlighting Leah and Joseph while bringing attention to a preventable tragedy.

  3. Thank you so much for running this story, which mirrors so much of what so many of our families in Massachusetts are also facing. Hopefully this will help raise public awareness of the great injustice that is going on. Of course my deepest sympathies to Leah.

  4. As a foster parent (now former) for some 16 years, I have been listening to Part 1 of the story “Unsafe in Foster Care” with rising anger and distress for the shabby way that Leah Garcia was treated by the LA system. Her situation just would NOT have unfolded like it did in the metropolitan county I fostered for in Colorado, even though my experiences were 20 years ago. So many things there that were so wrong, so unfair, for her.
    For example, I would drive, on average, 25,000 miles a year taking along my foster children and my own children who were either not in school at the time or were too young to be legally left at home, for various appointments and visits for the foster children. I would never have expected a birth parent to make such a trek for a visit using public transport. We would have taken the child to a convenient safe location for a visit with his parent, often at the county human services offices if supervision was thought to be needed.
    The foster parents said that Joseph was “a difficult child” but any baby or toddler can have issues after being wrenched away from his familiar world. Where possible, a well-trained foster parent works with the family to make the separation less stressful.
    As for the way DCFS treated Ms. Garcia after her child suffered a broken arm, then worse still, after her child was killed while in the foster care system – I’m stunned.
    I feel deeply for the mom, having myself lost a child suddenly and unexpectedly, and the system’s treatment of a bereaved mother was, and is, heartless.
    Please tell me that in Part 2 you will be following up on this situation and Ms. Garcia will get proper answers and perhaps some sort of justice, though nothing can bring back little Joseph. She needs a lawyer!

  5. This is absolutely tragic. We need better measures to ensure accountability for duty of care at every step in the process – including transitional custody guardians / foster care.
    If racial bias is contributing to disparate assessment / intervention approaches by DCFS workers (as your compelling examples illustrate,) then that absolutely needs to be scrutinized and remedied.
    However, we shouldn’t ignore the tragedy that can and does occur at the opposite end of the spectrum. There have been many cases where over-reluctance or negligent failure to intervene and remove a child from a truly dangerous home situation has resulted in repeated physical harm, trauma or death. (Gabriel Fernandez, a widely-known example among many.)
    Threading the needle between holding DCFS accountable to act, where needed, AND to ensure they do so in a way that it is free from racial bias is a challenging but critical endeavor. I’m no expert on the operational side, and thus not qualified to opine on potential solutions – but all sides need to be addressed in the interest of children’s’ safety and racially equitable treatment within the system.
    Thanks for bringing attention to this.

  6. Why haven’t Immediate protocols to remove children from a foster home when there’s a death been implemented?! This should be a rule in the system!!

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Credits


Produced by Deepa Fernandes and Victoria Estrada, edited by Marta Martinez. Featured illustration by Alex Charner.