Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Yolo County supervisor’s story forces a hard look at foster care

Matt Rexroad
Matt Rexroad dmorain@sacbee.com

Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad is an Iraq War veteran, a Marine, and a no-nonsense political consultant who works to elect Republicans. And his voice cracks when he talks about the little boy he came to call Bonus Baby.

He and his wife, Jennifer, and their two young children took Bonus Baby into their Woodland home as a foster child when he was a newborn. The county had deemed the infant’s young mother unable to care for him.

For the next two years, Rexroad proudly posted Bonus Baby’s cute exploits on Facebook, and traced his growth into Bonus Toddler, never mentioning his name, knowing that would violate foster care rules.

The Rexroads understood foster care, or thought they did. They knew social workers would reunify the little guy with his mom if she turned her life around, and they supported the notion.

But as the reunification process unfolded, the Rexroads came to fear for the baby’s well-being. Unable to persuade county social workers to reconsider, they hired a lawyer, and pleaded their case in court, and lost.

The court proceedings were closed. The judge’s reasoning is sealed. Rexroad, an attorney, cannot discuss the case in any detail. All I know is that the young boy has been with his biological mother for a few weeks. Her name, like everything else in this area of law, is confidential.

Boards of supervisors are responsible for overseeing child welfare services. But in Rexroad’s nine years on the Yolo County board, there had never been any detailed discussion of the department, in no small part because of the confidentiality that surrounds the system. That changed at the Yolo County board meeting on Tuesday.

“We’re not doing a good job on behalf of children of Yolo County,” he told the other four supervisors.

Never mentioning Bonus Toddler’s name or details of the case, Rexroad offered a foster parent’s eye view of the child welfare system. Using PowerPoint and his persuasive powers, Rexroad explained that Yolo County has an outdated procedure for determining whether to reunite a family. There is, he said, no evidence that parenting courses of the sort required by Yolo County do any good.

Lawyers appointed by Yolo County, he said, don’t specialize in representing parents or children. Instead, they defend a child’s interest in one hearing, a mother in the next and a father in a third. By representing every party, lawyers can’t represent anyone well, least of all the most important person, the child.

The county uses an algorithm, he said, that permits reunification if the risk of abuse within an 18-month period is between 11 percent and 31 percent, quite a range. What adult would roll the dice if there is even an 11 percent chance of abuse?

He urged his colleagues to place the Child Welfare Services Department into receivership. That didn’t happen. But the board told the county administrator, Patrick Blacklock, to focus on the issue immediately. The board also agreed to Rexroad’s request that Yolo County welfare workers cease automatically reuniting children if biological parents have been convicted of violent felonies, drug felonies, sexual or other physical abuse of a child or a sibling, and other crimes.

Being a child welfare worker is tough duty. In Yolo County, with a population of 200,000, there ought to be 50 child welfare workers, except there are eight vacancies. They oversee 569 open cases, including 245 children 17 or younger in foster care.

A bill by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, approved last year seeks to greatly reduce counties’ reliance on group homes for foster kids. To comply, counties will need to recruit large numbers of adults willing to accept the responsibility of rearing another parent’s child. Rexroad isn’t sure he’d do it again, knowing what he now knows.

Over coffee on March 23, Rexroad recalled that during his days as a Capitol staffer for Republican legislators in the 1990s, he’d see legislation that would undermine parental rights. A libertarian by nature, he would align with parents, not government. Now, he isn’t so certain.

Libertarianism depends on individuals being able to care for themselves. Children cannot fend for themselves. It also depends on information. There is no free flow of information in the child welfare system.

“The only time we hear about it is when a child dies,” he said. “It is all hidden from public view.”

The Rexroads became foster parents believing their family could handle a new addition, and because of their Christian faith. In a sense, Rexroad was paying forward his childhood. He was adopted when he was an infant.

“We have paid an enormous price,” he said.

Now that Bonus Toddler has been reunited with his mother, the Rexroads get visitation, for the moment. They spent an hour and half together on Tuesday. The little boy played with his toys and touched everything he had grown to know in his first 25 months of life. After the time was up, and he had to go, Bonus Toddler cried. So did the hardened Marine-politician-campaign-consultant who has returned, heart-first, from his own journey into a foster care system that too often delivers less than it should for the children it’s supposed to serve.