Lisa Castillo and her two daughters with Attorney Vincent Davis, founder of the Law Offices of Vincent W. Davis & Associates, who represented the family in their legal action against L.A. County.
LA COUNTY SETTLES FOR $999,999
According to papers filed with the U.S. District Court last Friday, a settlement of $999,999 was approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors after social workers removed a mother’s two daughters from her care after her son died of sudden infant death syndrome. As the Court filing explains it:
Plaintiff Lisa Castillo’s infant son died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), a tragedy that was in no way caused by Plaintiff or any other external factors. The baby’s treating physicians at the time of death unanimously confirm this. Nonetheless, Defendants County of Los Angeles and its social workers used Ms. Castillo’s son’s death as an excuse for “detaining” Ms. Castillo’s minor daughters B.U. and L.V. from her custody for half a year. This unwarranted intrusion into Plaintiff’s home life obviously caused permanent damage to the fabric of their family cohesiveness, leaving severe emotional scars for all of them in the process.
An intermediate order issued by U.S. District Court Judge Beverley Reid O’Connell details how employees of the County’s child protective services agency removed the children, thereafter forging documents to make it appears as if the mother had voluntarily signed off on placing her children with the County. Thereafter, running contrary to the nature of a voluntary agreement, they refused the mother’s repeated pleas to return her children.
The custody matter was never brought before a judge at the county’s Juvenile Dependency Court. It was, in effect, an in-house kidnapping without so much as the legal sanction of a compliant judge.
It started in October of 2012, when Lisa Castillo found her 3-month-old son lying in his crib, not breathing. The infant was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The following day, Rihana Acklin, a CPS case worker with the County’s Department of Children and Family Services, questioned Castillo and her family members about the boy. Five hours later, Acklin informed Castillo of her decision to remove the two older children from her custody.
It took 217 days until the sisters were returned to their home. The $999,999 settlement has been approved by by L.A. Board of Supervisors, and becomes final when approved by the Court this coming January.
Writing in The Chronicle of Social Change, contributor Carl Finer explains that this “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.”
The unusual twist is bypassing the court, which is known to give its blessing to the Department more often than not. “This was legally in limbo the whole time,” explained Luke Jackson, the mother’s attorney to the Chronicle. “Usually there’s an emergency hearing. This should have gone before a county court and had a judge’s eyes on it.”
It is a string of similar cases dating back some decades, however, with increased awareness of the problem the County seems eager to settle such cases more quickly, and, of those cases that do go before a jury, many are producing substantial awards. This, in turn, would appear to be emboldening a greater number of attorneys to take on such cases.
JURY AWARDS $3.1 MILLION
A Los Angeles County jury early this November found that two LA County DCFS social workers “intentionally and willfully seized a child from his mother without a warrant and did so with malice, oppression, and fraud.” according to Attorney Shawn McMillan.
L.A. County Supervising Social Worker Kimberly Rogers, and Social Worker Susan Pender, are to pay Rafaelina Duval $3.1 million dollars in restitution.
As Attorney McMillan explains it:
Ms. Duval’s baby, Ryan, was seized from her custody the evening of November 3, 2009. He was only 15 months old. According to the complaint, DCFS social workers falsely accused Duval of general neglect and willfully and intentionally starving her child. Baby Ryan was taken without a warrant – and only after the maternal grandfather called the social workers white trash, and accused them of racism. Attorney Shawn McMillan says, “The law is very clear and they get training on this, you can not seize a child from its parents unless there’s an emergency. The conduct of these workers, in my opinion, was motivated by their anger at being called trash, and did not have anything to do with the best interests of this child or his family.”
Not only was baby Ryan taken away without a warrant, social workers ordered no reunification. Allegedly, they falsely accused Ms. Duval of suffering from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy – an exceedingly rare mental illness. Ms. Duval was only allowed monitored visitation – an hour an half every two weeks.
In addition to the jury’s findings against the two workers, McMillan explains, the jury also unanimously found that LA County 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.”
That finding itself may well serve to open the door to similar suits in L.A. County.
Seven years had passed, but Ms. Duval never stopped fighting for Ryan, who is now 8 years old. The jury awarded Ms. Duval $3.1 million to compensate her for the emotional distress she suffered as a result of the unwarranted and malicious seizure of her baby, McMillan explains.
Early last year, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay out $800,000 to the parents of two children taken from their home by social workers accompanied by a Sheriff’s Deputy.
NPR station KPCC 89.3 reports that
Sebastian Xoss and Mirtha Lopez accused the county of the “baseless, unreasonable, and unlawful” removal of their 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son from the hotel where they were staying on Feb. 10, 2011. They had gone to the hotel in part to escape suspected abuse of the daughter by a relative of Lopez, according to the lawsuit.
Social workers with the Department of Children and Family Services claimed the parents “created a detrimental and endangering home environment” for the children by failing to provide nourishing food and immunizations, the lawsuit states. They also accused Xoss of having untreated mental health issues that were a danger to the children.
The report continues on to note that the parents had accused the deputy and social worker of entering their hotel without a search warrant or “exigent circumstances.” The lawsuit describes the deputy mocking the parents for not immunizing their children based on their religious beliefs, and homeschooling them. It also accused him of coercing the parents into a search of their hotel room.
“You could lose your kids forever,” the Deputy allegedly threatened.
According to the Statement of Proceedings of the L.A. County Claims Board for January 12, 2015, this was not the only such case that came to be settled on that particular day.
In addition to the case of Xoss and Lopez – in fact, directly beneath it on the roster – was the case of Lyle Weisman v. County of Los Angeles, et al. United States District Court Case No. CV 12-10207, which the L.A. County Claims Board thus summarized: “This lawsuit alleges that the Department of Children and Family Services violated plaintiff’s civil rights arising from two alleged wrongful detentions of plaintiff’s child.”
The Claims Board approved a settlement of the matter in the amount of $75,000.
It doesn’t take much effort to find similar settlements among the Statements of Proceedings of the Los Angeles County Claims Board.
From the April 21, 2014, Proceedings, the case of Gillian Baker, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al. United States District Court Case No. CV 11-0550, described thus by the Board: “This lawsuit alleges that the Department of Children and Family Services wrongfully detained two minors, and alleges excessive force was used by a Sheriff’s Deputy during an arrest at juvenile court.” The Claims Board recommended to the Board of Supervisors the settlement of the matter in the amount of $250,000.
From the June 18, 2012, Proceedings, the case of Evelyn Pena, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al. United States District Court Case No. CV 11-05038. “This lawsuit alleges that the Department of Children and Family Services wrongfully detained two siblings – an infant and toddler.”
The root cause of the children’s detention was thus described: “Detention of two children due to one of the children sustaining a dog bite by the family pet that was not vaccinated.” The Claims Board recommended to the Board of Supervisors the settlement of this matter in the amount of $165,000.
Wrongfully removing children from their homes isn’t the only thing that DCFS finds itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit for. Consider the case of Darlene McDade-White v. County of Los Angeles. Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BC 458 184, as described in the June 4, 2012, Proceedings:
This lawsuit concerns allegations that an employee of the Department of Children and Family Services was retaliated against for whistle-blowing, subjected to discrimination and harassment based on her race, and that she was subjected to invasion of privacy and false imprisonment.
Action Taken: The Claims Board approved settlement of this matter in the amount of $70,000.
The name rang a bell, so I did a little digging. As it turns out, investigative reporter Garrett Therolf, of the Los Angeles Times, had written a short article about the case some time earlier.
“Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services officials have continued to search for individuals they believe shared confidential information about child deaths with The Times, according to a senior official who alleged that her personal belongings underwent a warrantless search,” Therolf explained.
“Darlene McDade-White, the department’s lead internal affairs investigator, said she drew suspicion when she filed a whistle-blower claim along with another DCFS official. Her complaint alleged that the department falsified child death reports to eliminate mention of case management errors that contributed to the fatalities,” wrote Therolf.
“The whistle-blowing was met not with corrective action, but with severe retaliation directed at me by members of the department,” McDade-White said.
To put the matter into an historical context, on May 21, 2002, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise ran a story aptly entitled “Claims Board Advises County to Pay $450,000 to Settle Suit Over Demotion,” a case that involved former Department of Children and Family Services official Rebecca Lizarraga who claimed she was demoted because she prompted an investigation into gross misconduct by the department’s former head.
Her complaint alleged that “she learned of allegations of abuse and neglect at the home of Sandra Rodriguez, a prominent member of the community and a friend of Peter Digre, then the DCFS director.”
She further alleged that she launched an investigation that uncovered “scores of violations and possible misconduct” by Digre.
Not surprisingly, she found herself demoted, notwithstanding “numerous accolades” for her outstanding work with DCFS – a fact that the County did not dispute. DCFS, however, maintained that Lizarraga was demoted “because of a county Board of Supervisors investigation that substantiated that she and several other DCFS employees were not qualified for the positions they held.”
The takeaway is that whistle-blowing – even when it involves the deaths of children in the Department’s care – is not the best of ways to advance your career with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.
At least that was the takeaway until the unthinkable happened; a child known to the system died a gruesome death, and the story made headlines around the world.
Gabriel’s case files pointed to visits that were never made; cursory investigations; falsified records that should have been flagged by supervisors; and, a multi-year-long history with the Department that leaves any reasonable person reviewing the files to wonder in complete amazement at how his safety plan could possibly have indicated that: “Based on currently available information, there are no children likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm.”
Two case workers and two of their supervisors were arrested and charged with felonies, described in the arrest warrant as being “willfully and unlawfully” committed.
The substance of the charges were that the case workers knowingly allowed Gabriel to be subjected to “unjustifiable physical pain and mental suffering” and permitted him to be “placed in such situation that his/her person and health was/were endangered.”
The details of young Gabriel’s untimely death have been well publicized, and there is little to be gained by further repetition here.1 What is missing from all of the analysis is the essential context of the whistle-blowing inside the agency that – if handled differently – may well have served to spare his life.
THE $2.65 MILLION SETTLEMENT
In its public notice of a meeting of the County of Los Angeles Claims Board held on June 6, 2016, the agenda includes two cases, consolidated for purposes of a joint settlement. These would be Robert Fernandez v. County of Los Angeles, et al. Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. MC 024 306. And, Estate of Gabriel Fernandez, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al. Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BC 552 734. The cases are briefly summarized:
These lawsuits concern allegations of civil rights violations, and failure to investigate by the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Public Social Services, which resulted in the death of a minor; settlement is recommended in the amount of $1,841,000.2
Directly above that understated entry – and quite easily overlooked in the wake of all the attention given to Gabriel’s case – is that of grandparents whose angst went unreported. Their pain is barely worth a column-inch in the tabloids, however it haunts me nonetheless, and the results of their case will doubtless haunt them for the remainder of their lives.
The case is that of Daniel Vos, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al. Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BC 522 637, thus described on the agenda:
This lawsuit alleges plaintiffs’ civil rights were violated when the Department of Children and Family Services deprived them of a fair chance to adopt their granddaughter based on allegations of misconduct; settlement is recommended in the amount of $400,000.
From the summary provided, it would appear to be a particularly egregious case: “The Plaintiffs are the paternal grandparents of seven-year-old Shawn. The plaintiffs claim that they were deprived of a ‘fair chance’ to adopt their granddaughter. The lawsuit alleges six causes of action, including violation of the Civil Rights Act, 42 United States Code section 1983, violation of State civil rights statutes, and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.”
It is one of countless similar cases that fall by the wayside; the family unrepresented by an attorney, unnoticed by the press, uncompensated by the Board, and forever alone in their suffering.
Darlene McDade-White and Cassandra Turner were both relatively high-ranking workers in the DCFS bureaucracy. Claims that child fatality reports had been intentionally misleading were initially made by Turner, a Department of Children and Family Services senior manager, who said her superior “purposefully falsified at least three child fatality reports,” according to a report by Garrett Therolf of the Los Angeles Times.
“These falsifications, which occurred in spite of my fervent protest, are clearly contrary to department policy,” Turner wrote in her civil claim. Garrett Therolf continues on to explain that,
Turner served as an administrator in the department’s child fatality section at the time of the alleged falsifications. Her claim does not contain specifics about those cases. She also says in the claim that she reported the wrongdoing directly to department Director Trish Ploehn in April 2008.
One more crucial point needs to be addressed. These allegations came to light, Therolf explained, “as the Board of Supervisors acted to remove the county’s independent child-death investigator, according to three sources familiar with the decision.”
To put the matter into its proper perspective, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors was nothing less than complicit in the cover-up, having chosen to conveniently sweep it all under the carpet with a relatively small out-of-court settlement, and the elimination of a crucial oversight position.
Whether the decisions made by department Director Trish Ploehn and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors had been instead to fully investigate and to take appropriate corrective actions at the time these issues were initially brought to their attention may have served to spare Gabriel Fernandez his life is something that we will never truly know.
We are left only to speculate as to whether they may have.
1. This case received international attention. By way of example, see Sasha Goldstein, “Newly Released Documents Show Abuse of Boy Missed until after His Torture-Murder Death,” Daily News, New York City, June 13, 2013, sec. Crime (noting the DCFS safety assessment filed that day reads. “Based on currently available information, there are no children likely to be in immediate danger of serious harm”); Yanan Wang, “In Case of Fatal Torture of Calif. 8-Year-Old, Are His Social Workers Responsible?,” Washington Post, April 8, 2016 (“District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison told the AP that this is the first case of its kind to be prosecuted in Los Angeles County, and likely the first in the state”); Alexia Fernandez, “Social Workers Arraigned in Case of Tortured, Fatally Beaten 8-Year-Old Boy,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2016; James Nye, “Gabriel Fernandez, 8, ‘Made to Eat Vomit before Being Beaten to Death,'” Daily Mail Online, United Kingdom, August 19, 2014 (providing its usual sensationalized coverage replete with multiple photographs drawn from a wide variety of sources).
2. A complete reading of the document reveals the total amount to be paid out to be $2.65 million.