The New York Times has joined forces with the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to provide expanded coverage on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting California.

This story, led by IRP reporter Garrett Therolf, involved four students and ran on page one of The Times on August 7, 2020.

By Garrett Therolf, Daniel Lempres and

TOLLHOUSE, Calif. — In February, the child abuse hotline for Tollhouse, a small community in the Central Valley, received the first of several tips raising urgent concerns about the well-being of twin infant boys.

Child welfare workers quickly concluded that the infants, just 2 days old, were at grave risk. When they visited the mother, Kristina Braden, she readily admitted that her methamphetamine addiction had continued far into her pregnancy, case records show. This same addiction had contributed to a well-documented history of neglect that had already caused Ms. Braden to lose custody of her three older children.

The warning signs should have triggered an immediate intervention to protect the babies. Yet for the next month, as the coronavirus took off and California declared a stay-at-home order statewide in mid-March, the child welfare agency did almost nothing other than asking Ms. Braden to take a drug test, which she failed to do, records show.

The agency intervened only after an employee noticed that Ms. Braden had posted on Facebook that one child, Aiden, had died. The posting came 38 days after the initial call to the hotline.

Autopsy results are pending, but child welfare officials have determined that Aiden’s death was the result of neglect; his mother, who declined to comment, was found to be on methamphetamines the day after Aiden’s body was discovered in her bed, and the surviving infant was immediately removed from her care. Ms. Braden has not been criminally charged.

Throughout California, child welfare workers are deemed essential workers with life-or-death duties. But unlike police officers or firefighters, most child welfare workers are now working from home in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. As a result, records and interviews show, scores of investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect have been delayed or sharply curtailed during the pandemic.

In Fresno County, where Tollhouse sits in the foothills on the edge of the Sierra Nevada, about a third of the child welfare staff went on leave as the pandemic spread. Even those who remained on the job generally did work they could manage without leaving their homes.

Tricia Gonzalez, the head of Fresno County’s child protective services, said that as the outbreak accelerated, the agency struggled to maintain basic operations and was “trying to figure out how to basically turn everything around immediately.” The slow response to the Braden infants, she acknowledged, is symptomatic of the wider delays throughout the system.

“That’s not my preference, it’s not my expectation, but it is the reality due to my work force,” she said.


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