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600 days after her baby’s death in foster care, a parent waits for justice

Yan He holds her son Brian during a supervised visit on Sept. 3, 2021. Brian Pan died just days later in San Mateo County’s foster care system. | Courtesy Yan He

Sept. 13, 2021, was the day when Yan He learned that her 8-week-old son had died in foster care. The 36-year-old mother of three, an immigrant from China and a resident of San Mateo at the time, has been waiting for answers every day since.

Her newborn son, Brian Pan, endured a number of tragedies during his short life: After his father allegedly dropped him on a table, he was taken away from his parents and placed in a foster home, where he died in the arms of his caregiver.

Some 600 days later, the initial shock and horror have spawned two criminal investigations and a civil lawsuit, pushing the mourning mother to the edge of her mental and financial capacity.

“My resources were depleted,” she said in a court document in April 2023. “[M]y life changed forever.” 

A Chaotic Family Night

The tragic series of events began on a chaotic night in He’s home in San Mateo on Aug. 7, 2021, when Brian and his twin brother were only about 3 weeks old.

Seven people were living together at that time: He and her parents, her husband, the twin babies and their toddler brother. The grandparents were there to help care for the three children.

In Chinese culture, many new mothers adhere to a traditional month of postpartum resting—known as “zuo yue zi” (坐月子) —which meant He was supposed to stay in bed and breastfeed but otherwise not do too much of anything.

All the work of maintaining the household and taking care of the babies fell on the shoulders of her husband, Bin Pan. According to a source close to the family, Pan was extremely exhausted.

According to He’s statement in the court document, “an unfortunate disagreement” arose between her husband and her father, which led to a physical altercation between the two men. During the fight, Pan allegedly dropped baby Brian on a glass table. It’s unclear what else transpired during the dispute between the husband and his father-in-law, or which family member called the police.

The San Mateo Police Department confirmed with The Standard that at 8:44 p.m. that night, they received a call about a disturbance. Pan was arrested less than an hour later and charged with attempted murder, willful cruelty to a child and battery. Baby Brian allegedly sustained skull fractures. 

After the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office charged Bin Pan, he entered a plea of no contest; he has not been sentenced yet.

But his court case was far from the end of this tragedy.

Yan He holds her son Brian Pan shortly after his birth on July 21, 2021. Brian died in San Mateo County’s foster care system. | Courtesy Yan He

A Foster Home Tragedy

San Mateo County officials didn’t just arrest Pan. They also took both infant twins and their elder brother away from their mother. The twins were later discharged from the hospital in healthy condition and placed under foster care in Pacifica on Aug. 10, according to He. The elder brother was placed in a separate foster home.

But He was dissatisfied with the county’s decision. She argued that she and her parents had no previous record of mistreating their children, and because her husband was detained without bail, nothing about the family’s situation posed any threat to the children’s well-being, so the kids should return home instead of going to foster care.

Placing kids into foster care is part of the county’s comprehensive Child Protective Services, which aims to provide a safe environment for children who are at-risk or in immediate danger. The county maintains a 24-hour hotline for reporting child abuse and neglect. 

Brian and his brother were placed in the care of Alice Navarra, 73, and her husband, James Navarra, 72, according to Pacifica Police Department records.

Foster homes are supposed to be refuges from danger. The families who agree to take children in receive a monthly stipend to cover the cost of food, clothing and other needs. But barely a month after the newborns were taken in, tragedy struck again.

After midnight on Sept. 12, 2021, Alice Navarra felt tired after feeding the twin boys and fell asleep with them on the couch; Brian was in her arms in a cradled position while the other twin was in a car seat on the couch, according to the Pacifica police report.

In the morning, James Navarra found Brian unresponsive on his wife’s lap, and the couple called the police. Police reports confirm that first responders came to the foster home and found the baby unresponsive. He was later pronounced dead. 

Because Brian suffered skull-fracture injuries previously, the law enforcement investigation couldn’t immediately determine his cause of death. However, months after the fact, the coroner determined Brian’s cause of death to be “positional/compressional asphyxia,” which appeared to be related to an unsafe sleeping position.

According to their statements to the police, the Navarras have been foster parents for the past three decades. The Standard attempted to reach them via phone and social media, but they did not respond. 

According to police, the foster parents stated they had only planned to take care of one infant, and were surprised when county authorities asked them to take both twins. The aging couple was already fostering two other teenagers, meaning four children in total were in their care at the time.

Who’s Responsible?

The Pacifica Police Department confirmed with The Standard that they have finished the investigation, which recommended child abuse and manslaughter charges against Alice Navarra.

San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe told The Standard that Pacifica police had submitted the case to his office and he has assigned a prosecutor to review it, but no charges have been filed yet.

Statistically, Brian Pan’s death is rare. According to county data, 53 children entered foster care in the county in 2021, and 68 in 2022. Brian Pan is the only child who died.

The county declined to answer questions about the standards and practices when placing children into foster homes, and whether they consider the workload, number of kids and age of foster parents.

But for He, she believes that San Mateo County government is responsible. She filed a claim asking for over $5 million in damages, only to be rejected because she has missed the six-month filing deadline. 

However, He contends that deadline should not apply because she only received the report stating the cause of death in May 2022, and it was not until August—almost a year after baby Brian’s death—that the Pacifica police reports were made available to her.

Now, she’s petitioning the courts to allow her case against the county to move forward. Although she would not speak directly to The Standard, her attorney, Sanjiv Singh, contends that the county failed to identify a safe, proper foster care placement, which ultimately led to the infant being crushed and suffocated.

“San Mateo, in my opinion, is single-handedly responsible for the death of Brian Pan,” Singh said. “There is no excuse for this,” he added, “and the situation was entirely preventable.”

The civil lawsuit is pending. The county said it is evaluating how to respond.

Brian’s twin brother and older brother were finally reunited with their mom on Oct. 12, 2021, a month after Brian’s death. They have been with her since, though the family has moved elsewhere in the United States, according to Singh.

But their fight for answers is not over.

“It is mind-boggling that the twins were taken from her in the first place,” Singh said. “There are very real questions of whether there was deliberate concealment of the circumstances surrounding Brian’s death.”