SAN JOSE – The father of baby Phoenix Castro was denied bail on a felony child endangerment charge Monday, as new court filings helped explain the mystery of how the 3-month-old girl could have ingested a lethal dose of fentanyl while in her father’s care.
A crime lab analysis found fentanyl “all over” the pink flowered onesie she was wearing when she died May 13, including around the neck area.
At the bail hearing, several family members fought back tears as they read prewritten letters pleading with Superior Court Judge Christopher Rudy to keep Phoenix’s father, David Castro, in jail, stressing he still has visitation rights with his two older children, now 3 and 4, who are living with their maternal grandmother. The baby’s mother, Emily De La Cerda also died of a fentanyl overdose, four months after Phoenix’s death.
“If he has fentanyl on his hands… they could also be exposed,” the grandmother, Rita De La Cerda, told the judge.
The case of baby Phoenix has been the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Bay Area News Group, which found Santa Clara County’s child welfare agency disregarded numerous red flags when it sent her home with her father, while her mother was spending time in jail and in treatment after giving birth.
The couple’s two other children had already been taken away by the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services two years earlier. And just two months before Phoenix was born with drugs in her system, both parents tested positive for cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamines.
A social worker assigned to the case of the older children warned higher ups the day before Phoenix was released from the hospital that the infant could end up dead in the care of her father. Phoenix was sent home with Castro anyway.
The day of Phoenix’s death, police found fentanyl in the kitchen and broken glass pipes on the kitchen counter next to the baby’s baby bottle.
The case has spurred outrage among social workers who say their hands have been tied as lawyers for the county have played an outsize role in determining whether children should stay with their families or be removed as part of a strategy shift to keep more families together.
At Monday’s hearing, there were other surprise revelations as well. Deputy District Attorney Maria Gershenovich revealed that Castro told police in October that he would time his drug use around social workers’ planned visits to his home, where they would test him for drugs. Documents obtained by this news organization show that on at least two occasions he failed to answer the door when a social worker showed up and knocked.
In her statement to the judge Monday, Emily’s cousin Deanna De La Cerda said that authorities told family members after the baby’s death that they should stay away from the drug-filled San Jose apartment because it was so “toxic.”
They weren’t even supposed to touch Emily’s body over concerns that fentanyl residue had made her hazardous to others, she said.
Gershenovich told the judge Monday that Castro was so reckless with baby Phoenix that the “onesie that she was wearing… was covered in fentanyl.”
She argued that Castro should not be let out on bail given his long history of drug abuse, his endangerment of his daughter and his failure to appear in court numerous times in the past.
Defense attorney Brian Matthews said the court had other options to release Castro from jail without jeopardizing public safety, including ordering him to stay home, requiring a GPS device, denying him visits with his older children, or placing him in a drug treatment program.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Rudy ruled that there was no other way to protect Castro’s older children and public safety than by keeping him in jail.
Before the hearing began, relatives and friends gathered in a prayer circle outside the courtroom. After the hearing, the De La Cerda family expressed relief that Castro would remain behind bars for now.
Santa Clara County already let Castro “slip through the cracks so many times,” said Monica Rodriguez, Emily’s cousin. But she hoped that this time would be different.
“Justice is just beginning, “ she said.