Caseworkers Dispirited Over Charges in Girl’s Death

March 24, 2011

By Cara Buckley and Mosi Secret  |  The New York Times  —  

The faces looked commanding, soulful and, above all, streetwise, as they began staring out at New Yorkers three years ago from posters blanketing subway cars. The intent was to recruit top-flight talent to the city’s beleaguered Administration of Children’s Services after the death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown.

“Are you brave enough?” asked the posters, which featured real caseworkers. “Tough enough?” “Wise enough?”

Left out were the drawbacks: a starting salary of $42,000, a long history of burnout and, every few years, it seemed, a blast of negative attention when a child in the agency’s care died of abuse.

Never before, however, had any caseworker been accused of contributing to a death. But that is what happened this week, when the Brooklyn district attorney announced the indictment of a former caseworker and a supervisor on charges of criminally negligent homicide in the death of a 4-year-old girl.

On Thursday, agency workers, officials and even some child welfare advocates expressed fears that the charges would make a tough job — attracting smart, qualified people — even tougher, and might even make things worse for vulnerable families too.

“I’m very unhappy about it; I feel it’s unfair,” said Susan Greene, a newly hired caseworker who works in Brooklyn. “We do a lot of good work. It is a lot of work.” Potential workers, she said worriedly, “might not want to work for this agency.”

The agency is bracing for even more bad news. The mayor’s proposed budget includes across-the-board cuts, and should it pass, the child protective services arm of the agency would lose $19 million, forcing staff cuts and burdening individual caseworkers with more work. In a budget hearing on Thursday, John B. Mattingly, commissioner of the agency, did his best to defend the budget, but acknowledged, “I would say the budget cuts hurt us.”

Tensions were already high at the Administration for Children’s Services after the death in September of the 4-year-old, Marchella Brett-Pierce, who had been repeatedly beaten and bound and who was 18 pounds when she died.

Her mother has been charged with murder, and on Wednesday, Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, announced the indictments of the former caseworker, Damon Adams, and his former supervisor, Chereece Bell, on charges including criminally negligent homicide. Mr. Adams, who was also charged with falsifying records, was accused of lying about visits to Marchella’s home that he had not made; Ms. Bell was accused of failing to monitor him properly. Both have resigned and pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Hynes also said he was convening a special grand jury to look at “evidence of alleged systemic failures” at the agency.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg defended Mr. Mattingly on Thursday, saying he had “100 percent confidence” in him.

The mayor made a point of not criticizing Mr. Hynes’s decision to seek the indictments, saying, “I’ll just let the investigation play out.” But he added: “I think when anybody gets indicted or investigated or anything that has to do with a potential or an actual criminal charge, everybody thinks about it. It’d be irrational not to think about it.”

Marchella’s death and the workers’ indictments struck blows at the child welfare agency, which officials had scrambled to overhaul after a case that horrified the city in 2006: the death of Nixzmary Brown. Nixzmary had been bound to furniture with ropes and bungee cords and repeatedly beaten by her stepfather, but her plight went unheeded by child welfare workers.

The agency hired 600 more caseworkers, and though it has cut 200 positions and is likely to trim more, that brought the average caseload per worker down to 9 from 16.5. The agency also began an accountability program, modeled on the Police Department’s CompStat program, called ChildStat: agency leaders meet regularly to review statistics and cases. Retired detectives were hired as consultants to train caseworkers on investigative techniques. The turnover rate among caseworkers dropped.

The public responded, too: reports of child abuse and neglect increased markedly after Nixzmary’s death, and the agency found legitimacy in a greater percentage of claims.

Prompted by the recruitment drive, its beguiling posters and, most likely, the economy’s crash, applications doubled from 2007 to 2008. Some 1,260 candidates remain on a waiting list, suggesting recruitment will not immediately be hurt. Still, according to Andrew White, director of the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, and editor of Child Welfare Watch, the indictments could impair such efforts. “It highlights the worst things that can happen in child protection,” he said.

Several legal experts said that in obtaining indictments of the former caseworker and his supervisor, Mr. Hynes may have overreached.

Martin Guggenheim, an expert in child welfare and a professor of law at New York University, said the charge of falsifying documents was sufficiently punitive and merited investigation of the agency. The homicide charges, he said, “vastly overstates the wrong.”

Mr. Hynes’s office declined to comment on Thursday. Still, not everyone felt the homicide charges went too far, or would necessarily bode ill for future recruitment. One caseworker, who insisted on anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the indictments had scared people in her office. But, she added: “We were told we will get fired if we falsify documents. You cannot do that.”

Carole B. Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, a public interest legal advocacy organization based in San Francisco, said the indictments could send a message that the city had a high standard for child welfare work.

Meanwhile, union representatives said they planned to protest the charges outside Children’s Services offices on Friday. Faye Moore, president of S.S.E.U. 371, the union that represents agency employees, said, “What the Brooklyn D.A. has done is indicted our whole profession.”

“We have two people that have decided to make a career out of saving children being charged with criminally negligent homicide because of paperwork,” she added.

There were also widespread fears that the homicide charges would hurt retention of caseworkers and result in more families being splintered. Several child welfare experts said caseworkers, newly nervous that an unintentional oversight could lead to a homicide charge, might grow more inclined to put children in foster care, even if it was not warranted.

Reporting was contributed by Ann Farmer, Elissa Gootman, Rebecca White and Karen Zraick.