A Murdered Palmdale Child & the Everyday Wounds of Thousands of LA Children….One Good DCFS Story….Drug Convictions & The “Wobbler Option”June 10th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon
Many of us are still haunted by the entirely preventable murder last month of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, the Palmdale boy who was reportedly abused over and over again, before the day he was tortured and fatally beaten by his mother and the mother’s boyfriend.
The fact of this child’s terrifying death is made worse by reports from other adults who knew him, like his elementary school teacher, Jennifer Garcia, who said she repeatedly warned officials that the sweet-faced, big-eyed boy was in peril. And yet, despite a blizzard of red flags, LA County DCFS officials charged with working his case ignored the danger and left this boy in the hands of his tormenters.
As ABC 13 reported:
“My first report was from October,” said Jennifer Garcia, Gabriel’s teacher. “And in every single report I made, there was enough information in that report that he should have been removed that first October.”
Over the weekend I noted that LA Times columnist Sandy Banks—who is a parent as well as a journalist with a healthy access to her compassion— wrote a column in which she expressed her own outrage at the inexplicable failure by DCFS to protect this little boy.
In the course of researching the column, Banks asked DCFS Chief Philip Browning, who has been on the job for 15 months with a mandate to clean up the chronically dysfunctional department, what the hell was going on?
She reports that Browning told her the following:
… Social workers feel hamstrung by a departmental obsession with keeping children with their families, given the shortage of good foster homes.
That policy was the product of a previous culture change, aimed at reducing foster care rolls and strengthening troubled families with resources like drug treatment, mental health care and parenting classes.
But Browning said it has “immobilized” social workers, who rely on mindless allegiance to the goal instead of “common sense and critical thinking” about what’s best for children.
“Social workers have said they feel pressured to leave kids with families,” Browning said.
Reading DCFS Chief’s explanation, my own fury shot through the roof.
Even if Browning’s contention was true, that part of the problem was an overload of pressure to reunite families, it is stating the painfully obvious to point out that such “pressure” in no way explains how social workers could decide that it was perfectly fine to leave a child in a household where everyone from his teacher, to his therapist, to various close relatives, reported to authorities that Gabriel Fernandez showed clear and repeated signs of frightening abuse.
However, figures show that, contrary to Browning’s contention that DCFS workers feel overly pressured to leave at-risk kids with their families, in practical fact, quite the opposite is occurring.
While the county’s removal rate did decrease dramatically for a few years from around 2006 to 2009 when what was known as the Title IV E waiver allowed counties to spend federal foster care dollars on a wide variety of services aimed at strengthening families with problems so that children could be helped to remain safely at home, instead of going through the trauma of being removed to foster care.
But then headlines over a handful of terrible cases like that of the death of Gabriel Fernandez whipped up a frenzy of public pressure, which began to push the pendulum back the other direction. After that programs began to be cut and the pendulum swung still further.
Thus, since 2009, DCFS has, if anything, been filing to remove more kids from their homes every year, not less. There were 10,725 petitions filed in 2009. In 2012, the number jumped to 13,454. Thus far this year, the rate is reportedly going still higher.
As a consequence, many family advocates have expressed strong concern that a worrisome number of kids are being yanked from their homes and into court unnecessarily.
And then at the other end of the spectrum, we have Gabriel Fernandez.
Certainly we sympathize with Chief Browning, who is charged with the daunting task of reforming the largest foster care system in the nation, with 27,188 children under LA’s courts’ jurisdiction, at last count.
But we do not believe it is responsible to react to one ghastly tragedy, with wrong-headed rhetoric that could easily trigger more slow-motion, everyday tragedies.
A RARE HAPPY ENDING FOR ONE 17-YEAR-OLD FOSTER “CHILD” WHO GETS ADOPTED AFTER BEING ARRESTED
The always excellent Joe Piasecki has a story in the Pasadena Sun of the adoption of 17-year-old Fred Jingles, who had not only spent years in foster care, but had also landed himself in LA juvenile justice system when, emotionally whiplashed by his father’s terminal illness, and his misery at being separated from his family, he slugged a kid at the group home where he was staying and knocked him out.
But this tale appears, at the moment anyway, to have a happy ending. Here’s a clip from Piasecki’s story, but be sure read the rest, or at the very least, check out the photo of Jingles gazing happily at his new mom-to-be as he is going through adoption proceedings.
Here’s the clip:
Following a series of family tragedies, four years in the foster care system and a seven-month stint in a juvenile probation camp for a schoolyard assault, 17-year-old Fred Jingles sat in a Pasadena courtroom on Tuesday for arguably the most important hearing of his life.
He was being adopted.
Holding hands with his birth mother, who sat teary-eyed and wearing a blue Twin Towers jail uniform, Fred took the, almost unheard of, step of being united with new parents while a ward of the Los Angeles County Probation Department.
“You’re going to be all right. And your mother is, too. And I love you,” Kimberly Freeman told her youngest child before signing over parental rights to Fred’s paternal aunt, LaVetta White, and her husband, Rondia White.
Adoptions are typically a happy ending reserved for the dependency court system, which handles cases of parental abuse or neglect and oversees some 16,000 children in county-run foster care.
Fred’s adoption out of delinquency court is only the third such case in the history of Los Angeles County, said Lisa Campbell-Motten, a probation department supervisor.
She hopes many similar stories will emerge among the hundreds of Los Angeles-area foster kids mixed in with the county’s roughly 20,000 young offenders on criminal probation or living in juvenile halls and camps.
THE WAR ON DRUGS…AND THE “WOBBLER” OPTION
This smart editorial from the LA Times editorial board (written by Rob Greene) explains why, SB 649—the new drug “wobbler” bill that would allow simple possession of a small amount of an illegal substance to be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor— should be passed forthwith.
Here’s a clip, but as usual, we urge you to read the whole thing in order to get the full picture of why this piece of legislation should work for both sentencing reformers and law-and-order types.
Okay, here’s the clip:
Simple possession of small amounts of methamphetamine — enough for personal use but presumably not for dealing — is a “wobbler” in California, meaning that offenses can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors. It’s different with possession of cocaine, opiates such as heroin and many other addictive drugs; they currently can be charged only as felonies.
The state Senate has now passed a bill to bring criminal handling of those drugs into line with methamphetamine, and the measure is before the Assembly. SB 649, by Democrat Mark Leno of San Francisco, is good policy and should be adopted.
The bill is an improvement over a version Leno offered last year to convert possession to a misdemeanor, with no felony option.
True, there is something perverse about locking people up for any period for possessing highly addictive drugs for their own use. Most offenders have the stuff on hand because they are hooked. For years California sent such addicts to prison, where little or no treatment was available. They were released on parole, which they were practically fated to violate by using drugs again — because they were, after all, addicted.
This foolhardy approach gave California a steady supply of unrecovered addicts shuttling between prison and the streets. That meant continuing damage to neighborhoods dealing with the addicted, plus overcrowded prisons. At the end of last year, for example, there were more than 4,000 inmates in state prison for possessing drugs for personal use.
It would be better to divert addicts from the criminal justice system entirely if they could be successfully treated without ever going to jail or even to court. But for many addicts, there remains a role for punishment, or at least the threat of punishment…