When the Alternative to Foster Care Is an Unsafe Home, There Is Only One Right Choice

In February of 2023, Phoenix Castro was born in San Jose, Calif., suffering from neonatal opioid withdrawal after being exposed to fentanyl and methamphetamine in her mother’s womb.

Her mother was sent to jail and then ended up at a drug treatment facility. But her father, who had multiple drug arrests, was allowed to take the newborn to his San Jose apartment, even though a social worker had warned that the baby would be at “very high” risk if she was sent home, where the county’s child protection agency had already removed the couple’s two older children because of neglect.

Three months later, Phoenix was dead from an overdose of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

The ensuing uproar, chronicled in detail by The Mercury News, focused on new efforts by the county to keep at-risk families together. In the past, children often would be removed from unsafe homes and placed into foster care, and newborns like Phoenix in all likelihood would not have been sent home.

Those policy changes led to a “significant” drop in removals of children from troubled homes in the San Jose area, according to the state’s social services agency. They reflected a larger shift in child welfare thinking nationwide that has upended the foster care system. Reducing the number of children placed in foster care has been hailed as an achievement. But leaving children in families with histories of abuse and neglect to avoid the trauma of removing them has had tragic results.

We need to ask whether avoiding foster care, seemingly at all costs — especially for children in families mired in violence, addiction or mental illness — is too often compromising their safety and welfare.

The use of foster care has been in decline even as more children are dying from abuse and neglect in their homes. In recent years, the number of children in foster care fell by nearly 16 percent while the fatality rate from abuse and neglect rose by almost 18 percent. Many factors were and are at work, among them: a lack of resources, caseworker inexperience and the high bars for removing children from their homes that have been erected by child welfare agencies, policymakers and judges.

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