A mother is speaking out and sharing photos with the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit documenting unthinkable abuse suffered by her 4-year-old daughter while she was in foster care.
The woman, whom we are identifying as "Ana" to protect her daughter's identity, has filed a lawsuit accusing the Santa Clara Department of Social Services of ignoring multiple reports of abuse for months, until her daughter nearly died. It is one of two lawsuits now filed on behalf of the little girl. The accusations reflect what may be a much larger series of problems within the DSS regarding how the agency responds to abuse reports, which were highlighted in a county audit from 2013 and a 2015 civil grand jury report.
Ana says she took more than 100 photos depicting the abuse of her daughter during court-ordered supervised visits, but social workers refused to look at them. But Ana wasn't the only one who tried to report the ongoing abuse of her daughter. Court records show others tried to sound the alarm, including the child's preschool teacher.
"I wish somebody [did] something and social services pays for what happened to my daughter," Ana said.
According to a 2013 audit issued by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, there were likely many other cries for help that went unanswered during that same period. The audit found the County wasn't answering 41 percent of the calls to the emergency child abuse hotline, about 7,000 calls each year. Although a 2015 civil grand jury report found the number of child abuse calls going unanswered is down to 11 percent, high turnover at the department and rising caseloads for social workers continue to be an issue. That means slower response times and less one-on-one time between social workers and foster children. Experts say that creates trust barriers and decreases the likelihood a child will report abuse or neglect.
While DSS reported the number of answered hotline calls goes to 93 percent when they factor in returned voicemails, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese says he's not satisfied. Cortese was the chair of the county committee that ordered the 2013 audit of DSS.
"I don't think any member of the board will be satisfied with anything less than 100 percent responsiveness to those calls and immediate responsiveness to the actual needs of the children and families," Cortese said.
Phil Ladew has seen both sides of foster care system. He's the legal and associate director of California CASA, a non-profit that works to expand and support the network of court appointed special advocate programs in the state. But Ladew also grew up in the foster system, a personal history that drove him to devote his career to improving outcomes for the state's most vulnerable children. He's seen a lot, and knows spotting abuse can be tricky for social workers.
"It can be very difficult, actually," Ladew said. "You're dealing with judgment and you're dealing with people who can hide the abuse."
But, when children don’t see the same social worker on a consistent basis, Ladew says spotting patterns of abuse becomes even harder.
"If you have a high caseload it can be very challenging to spot the things you should be spotting," Ladew said.
While social services has hired more call center workers to staff the hotline, director Robert Menicocci said at an October hearing there are currently 50 vacancies for social workers and caseloads are high.
"The caseload has been in the low-to-mid-20s, but through this transition right now, this peak that we're having of the turnover and such, it has gotten into the higher 20s, and that's obviously of great concern to us," Menicocci said. "We think a number that is certainly lower than that is much more effective."
Menicocci said recent studies have shown that a caseload in the 15-to-20 range is ideal. Menicocci and other social workers named in the lawsuit declined interviews with NBC Bay Area, and the agency refused to answer even basic procedural questions not related to Ana's case. Lori Medina, director of the Department of Family and Children, also did not respond to any emails for information.
In addition to the issues with the child abuse hotline, the civil grand jury report found that surrounding counties had more robust systems in place to respond to voicemails left on the hotline.
"If a social worker cannot reach the caller, for confidentiality reasons, the social worker does not leave their number," the report states. "The Grand Jury was told the social workers do not make a second attempt to return the call. In comparison, the Grand Jury was told by both Alameda and San Mateo County three or four attempts are made to return voicemails."
Ana says social services should have done more for her daughter. Despite multiple reports, despite social workers seeing visible injuries on the child and despite photos of injuries Ana says she tried to show them, social workers left her in the home of her abusers until it was almost too late.
"The first time I talked to the social worker and tried to explain to her and tried to show her the picture, she [didn't] want to see it, she [didn't] want to look at it," Ana said.
Ana's daughter ended up in the hospital in critical condition last year, with bites, burns and bruises covering her body. The child's guardian, half-sister Krystal Paredes, is now facing torture charges that could potentially send her to prison for life. Others in the home are charged with felony child abuse for allegedly being complicit.
Ladew says we may never change the abusive behavior of some individuals, but we have room to grow as a society when it comes to the care of our most vulnerable.
"We know there's evil in the world," Ladew said. "People are going to abuse children. But once we know about it as a society, once we discover it, once we receive a phone call, what do we do?"
Ana says in the case of her child, social services didn't do enough.
"I feel like my hands are tied," she said. "My hands are tied. I feel like nobody can help me."
San Jose attorney Robert Mezzetti is representing Ana in the civil case against the county. He says agencies like the Department of Social Services are supposed to provide a safety net for the vulnerable. In this case, he says the safety net failed.
"You want to have faith in those people because those people have been trained," Mezzetti said. "Those people have been supervised, hopefully in the correct way, and you feel that it's a safety net. And when that safety net fails, it's devastating to everybody. It's devastating to society in general."
As for Ana's daughter, she's recovering from the trauma she suffered in the foster system, and Ana hopes they will be reunited soon. Mezzetti said their lawsuit will expose the flaws in the system and hopefully lead to significant changes.
"Without exposing this type of behavior, without exposing this type of failure, the law doesn't change and neither does the procedure," Mezzetti said.
Cortese said DSS leaders are expected to detail progress and change since the 2013 audit at two meetings: the Children, Seniors, and Families Committee meeting Thursday Nov 5th at 10AM and the Finance and Government Operations Committee meeting November 23rd at 2PM. Both meetings are open to the public. They will be inside Board Chambers at 70 West Hedding Street in San Jose.