Prosecuting Caseworkers for Child Fatalities, Take Two

Los Angeles police arrested four child welfare caseworkers this month in connection with the death of an 8-year-old boy known to the system, thought it appears it will be June before they enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

Union leaders representing the workers called the move “unprecedented and reckless.” The latter description is debatable, YSI-MB-Pagebut Youth Services Insider can say for certain that it is not without precedent.

In 2011, Brooklyn child welfare workers Chereece Bell and Damon Adams were arrested and then indicted in connection with the 2010 death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce.

The charges arose when Marchella, a child whose case was being monitored by the New York Administration for Children’s Services, was found dead in her home in September 2010. She was severely underweight, and had 60 doses of Claritin and 30 doses of Benadryl in her system.

Marchella’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder. Marchella’s grandmother, Loretta Brett, was convicted of manslaughter.

Assuming that the New York case is the first in which caseworkers were individually charged with culpability in a child’s death – and we could find no previous instance at the time – the Fernandez case is likely the second.

Now, there is a big, big difference in these two cases. In Los Angeles, the workers were charged with one felony count of child abuse, and one felony count of falsifying public records, and face up to 10 years in prison.

The New York workers were actually charged with criminally negligent homicide by former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. So the stakes were significantly higher.

Ultimately, both Adams and Bell pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, and then had that charge wiped from their records with the completion of several hundred hours of community service work.

It might be awhile until there is an outcome in the Los Angeles case. An arraignment was originally scheduled for last week, but the judge approved their request for a delay until early June.

David Green, a DCFS social worker and the treasurer of the union chapter representing the county’s social workers, wrote on our website that the arrest “has had a chilling effect on the country’s largest child welfare system.”

YSI heard almost the same sentiment during a 2011 interview with Bryan Samuels, who is now the head of child welfare research shop Chapin Hall and was then the commissioner of the federal Administration on Children, Youth and Families.

“The child welfare system in this country struggles to find good people and struggles to keep good people,” Samuels told YSI, just after Bell and Adams had been indicted. “When you have something like what happened in New York happen, it has a chilling effect on a system’s ability to get and keep good people.”

Samuels was not the only one in that camp. Mike Arsham, then the executive director of the New York-based Child Welfare Organizing Project, said, “I don’t know of anyone knowledgeable about the system who supports these prosecutions.”

Arsham, who now serves as director of advocacy for New York City’s child welfare agency, told YSI that he feared such prosecutions could influence the way caseworkers made decisions.

“Unnecessary removals of children from their families seem more likely if workers fear they may face criminal charges due to failure to remove,” Arsham said.

It is an interesting debate that, in our humble opinion, comes down to a two-pronged test. First, did a caseworker completely ignore their specified responsibilities when it came to checking on the welfare of a child on his or her caseload?

If that can be proven in fact, then the next question is this: was there a clear effort to conceal the breach of responsibilities? This would likely come in the form of forged documents that reported on the well-being of the child based on visits that did not happen.

In that scenario, in the event that a child dies, YSI would think it’s pretty reasonable to say the caseworker contributed to it. He or she would have prevented said child from the chance to receive the amount of monitoring expected by an agency charged with protection.

Would that monitoring have saved a life? No guarantee. But it would be certain that the cover-up prevented a chance for the system to step in.

We will never know the evidence in the case of Marchella Pierce, because both defendants took a plea. We’ll know soon enough where the second prosecution of child welfare workers over a child fatality is headed.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1135 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

7 Comments

  1. The best account I know of concerning what really happened in New York is this superb article from Jennifer Gonnerman in New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/news/features/acs-chareece-bell-2011-9/#print

    I don’t think that case is the *only* other case in which workers faced criminal prosecution – I seem to remember a couple of others, though I can’t name them – but it certainly is extremely rare. (And it may well have been “unprecedented” in Los Angeles until now.)

    Less rare are suspensions, demotions, firings and media attacks when a high profile child abuse deaths get a lot of media attention – fates that can befall everyone from the frontline caseworker to the agency chief. In contrast, I am aware of no worker in any child welfare system in America who has ever suffered such a fate for taking away too many children.

    I don’t know if the Los Angeles charges are justified or not. I hope that somewhere in Los Angeles, a journalist of Jennifer Gonnerman’s caliber is around to help us find out.

    But I also hope that the LA case puts to rest once and for all the myth that caseworkers are, as they sometimes like to say, “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” When it comes to taking away children, they’re *only* damned if they *don’t.*

    Richard Wexler

    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

    http://www.nccpr.org

    • It’s so simple for those who have never actually done the work to critique the child welfare system, as though they are in fact experts. I totally get that truly ‘seeing’ the grave family malfunction that leads to removal is painful to acknowledge and own. It’s so much less painful to believe it’s just a matter of poverty.

      The truth is that over the last thirty years we have made significant gains in making available flexible funding to assist families in meeting their needs, and no child need enter care only b/c of poverty. Typically parents have very entrenched addictions, generally accompanied by serious mental illness. Their own extended families have grow weary of trying to be supportive.

      At the other end of the age spectrum, we have families with youth whose externalizinf behavior presents a serious safety risk. These youth may sexually offend against siblings, mutilate animals, refuse to attend school, act out in anti-social ways, and physically harm caregivers.

      We want the very best of professionals to do the work (studies show that’s how we achieve the best outcomes), yet folks like yourself act in such a way as to undermine the workforce and fail to support the reforms in the workforce critical to good outcomes.

      How great to be an armchair critic. You never have to actually get your hands dirty doing the work.

    • Batting away reasoned dissent with blustery defensiveness does nothing to advance debate.
      Holding CPS to account is so rare it makes news. Good. The hard-working taxpayer needs both transparency and accountability.
      As we have seen in recent years, clergy, police, teachers and others sometimes commit crimes. Lawful society can’t exist with bad apples given cover. The rot in CPS demands action.
      I look forward to more such prosecutions.

    • Holding CPS accountable is rare?! Seriously? In my state everyone has legal representation, there are citizens review boards, child protection panels, ombudsmans, elected representstives to complain to, federal reviews, state reviews, accreditation reviews, quality assurance, federal and state audits…and more i likely haven’t thought of.

      Hardly a veil of secrecy.

    • Baloney, Arizona has all of those except the records are secret.
      Its the biggest scam out there, bunch of damn kidnappers.
      Don’t ever try to pass off to one of your victims that the system has transparency. If the general public realized what was happening youd all be in jail forever.

    • Oh my God, it’s real easy for some worker pushing to meet a quota or trying to get promoted to sit in judgement of parents, to the point of delusion. How can one industry be so evil?
      Lying, perjury, falsifying records, just total maltreatment to the entire family, and then they cry about pay. Your payday willcone in Hell, be dressed for it.

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