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