By law, Stanislaus County Child Protective Services operates under a cloak of secrecy when it comes to specific families and their problems.
So when little Aureliano Joel Vasquez drowned in the algae-clouded water of his backyard pool last weekend, it didn't matter that his mother, Florcita Vasquez, told The Bee that CPS repeatedly had visited her home in recent months because of complaints about her parenting skills.
County authorities couldn't even acknowledge whether they had been to her home because it would have breached her privacy. So the agency's official response was that it had none.
Consequently, both Florcita Vasquez and the agency incurred the wrath of angry readers who posted comments below the story Wednesday on modbee.com.
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Some examples of the vitriol, as they appeared online:
"CPS is also to blame. ... I don't care what excuses the workers come up with ... they are also to blame. I hope they are feeling it ... especially the person in charge of the CPS unit that let all these calls and visits 'slip by.' Your job is to PROTECT these children and to HEAR the people who are crying out for help for the children. CPS, you have your part in this too."
"It does not matter about your lifestyle or your culture when it comes to the raising of a child in a safe environment ... there isn't one perfect way to do it BUT YOU DON'T DO IT by continuous neglect. The whole system needs to change and if that is why CPS couldn't do their job then there is their excuse BUT MAKE NO MISTAKES ABOUT THIS CASE ... CPS DROPPED THE BALL ..."
Pretty harsh indictments. I met Friday with some CPS officials who, while they can't talk specifically about the Vasquez case, discussed their duties and their agency in general terms.
And yes, most social workers would rather be allowed to answer their critics.
"Many of us would like to vent," said George Medina, who supervises the staff's emergency response social workers. "But we have to respect (clients') privacy."
The problem with secrecy under any circumstance is that it can be used to mask mistakes or ineptitude. It also opens the door to criticism, and CPS has taken its share.
Whenever a child dies or is severely injured through abuse or neglect, and it's disclosed that CPS had been working with the family, people demand to know why the agency hadn't removed the child from the home when it had the chance.
Certainly, social workers can do so when they find that a child is in immediate danger, manager Sheelah Grant said.
But even though taking an abused or neglected child from the home seems like the obvious solution, it isn't always, social workers said. More often than not, the children would prefer to stay with their parents -- despite living in fear of them -- than be put into the foster care system. A survey of child clients spoke volumes.
"Kids were scared of three things," Medina said. "Gangs, cops and CPS. And of the three, they were most afraid of CPS because we can remove them from their homes."
The Community Services Agency, of which Child Protective Services is a part, has 86 social workers who work 42 to 75 cases per month. Budget cuts have reduced the staff by 25 positions since 2008.
CPS officials respond to every complaint or referral, said Christine Applegate, director of the Community Services Agency. The social worker who takes the complaint goes through a lengthy questionnaire to gather as much information as possible from the caller about the child, the family and the circumstances.
"Things do get taken seriously," she said. "Our main goal is child safety. The child is our customer, though we work with the parents and the whole family."
Many referrals come from law enforcement agencies after they have responded to incidents at a home and believe the children there might be at risk. They can come from schoolteachers, physicians or any other person who is required to report such abuse. Frequently, reports comes from neighbors or relatives.
The social workers determine the urgency of the situation. In cases considered immediate -- which include reports of physical or sexual abuse -- CPS contacts the family within two hours. Generally in those cases, the police already have been called to the home, Applegate said.
In other cases, contact is made within one to 10 days.
Sexual and physical abuse make the decision to remove the child from the home more clear-cut. Neglect is a tougher call. A social worker might find children living in squalor or unsupervised and order the parent to clean it up.
If the parent complies and if after 18 months of contact conditions have improved, the case is closed. Then the parent might slip back into the same old ways. Another complaint can restart the cycle.
If within 18 months, the parents haven't improved and the children remain in peril, the CPS can petition the court to have them removed and placed in foster homes. When that happens, CPS knows it will be criticized by friends and relatives of the family for being too intrusive. If it didn't remove the child, it would get ripped by others.
In many cases, parents are directed toward drug or alcohol rehab, parenting classes, anger management and other assistance offered by various agencies under the blanket term of "family resource centers."
"If it's (a report of) parents yelling at their kids but no physical abuse, we'll refer them to the family resource center, but we'll go out with (the other agency's worker)," Medina said. "This job is not black and white. Every family is different. Every situation is different. To use a cookie-cutter (approach), we'd be kidding ourselves."
So they operate on the belief -- one supported by the courts -- that children are better off when the family is kept together. They work to change the parents' behavior and improve their skills.
"We don't have a crystal ball," Grant said. "To be in this profession, you have to believe people can change. We have to believe people do love their kids and want to do right by their kids."
When faced with the threat of losing their children to the foster system, many parents do show some improvement. But it takes just one tragedy like the death of little Aureliano Joel Vasquez to remind CPS workers that the system is anything but perfect.
In that case or any other, they can't even explain why.
The cloak of secrecy prevents it.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.