Leaders Fear Dangerous Precedent As Homicide Case against Caseworkers Continues

by Raquel Arellano and John Kelly

The case against Chereece Bell and Damon Adams, two child welfare workers accused of homicide in the 2010 death of a New York City child, will head back to court this summer. The case is believed by many to be the first in which caseworkers stand criminally responsible for the death of a child known to the system.

There is fear among some child welfare leaders that convictions of the two caseworkers could create a precedent that threatens caseworker recruitment and push abuse and neglect investigators to rely more on foster care placements.

“I don’t know of anyone knowledgeable about the system who supports these prosecutions,” said Mike Arsham, executive director of the New York-based Child Welfare Organizing Project.

Conviction of either worker will have a “chilling effect on the recruitment and retention of child welfare workers,” said Yolanda Tumarejo, executive vice president of the New York Social Service Employees Union Local 371, which represents Bell and Adams.

That is a concern shared by Administration for Children, Youth and Families Commissioner Bryan Samuels, one of President Barack Obama’s top appointed official on child welfare.

“The child welfare system in this country struggles to find good people and struggles to keep good people,” Samuels told Chronicle of Social Change Editor-in-Chief John Kelly during a 2011 interview, 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.”

The two workers are charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of four-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.

The moment is near for the continued proceedings of Bell and Adams. The next step in the process will be a preliminary hearing on June 21, 2013. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has charged the ACS workers with multiple charges alongside the top charge of criminally negligent homicide, a charge predicated on the assumption that both workers could have anticipated the outcome of Marchella’s death and neglected to take steps toward protecting her.

Hynes, who has served as D.A. of Brooklyn for the past 23 years, said the workers falsified documents to cover up potential missteps in the case work.

The union is “outraged that the D.A. is moving forward with the charges” against the workers, Tumarejo said. She said the case reflects “grey” systemic issues with the child welfare process in places where rising caseloads and numerous other factors impact the ability of child welfare workers.

When asked to describe these systemic problems, Tumarejo and Shirley Gray, executive assistant of Local 371, both noted the same issue of high caseloads, as well as further demands for administrative work.

The job is now “more paperwork than social work,” Gray said, resulting in high levels of stress for child welfare workers and less time spent on cases.  Tumarejo targets the amount of paperwork, coupled with technology that does not meet the needs of ACS workers, as a significant barrier to worker success.

Arsham said CWOP, which exists to help families advocate for themselves when they’re accused of abuse and neglect, opposes the prosecution in this case because it could drive decision making against parents.

“Falsifying case records is against the law,” Arsham said. “Prosecute them for that. Unnecessary removals of children from their families seem more likely if workers fear they may face criminal charges due to failure to remove.”

New York paper The Village Voice ran a scathing critique of Hynes in January of 2013, including comments from union leaders and anonymous sources close to the Marchella Pierce case, all of which suggested the Hynes was prosecuting the two caseworkers for political gain.

Hynes, in a letter responding to the Voice article, dismissed that notion:

“The only people who accused me of politics in this case have been the defendants themselves and the union that represents them.

…ACS workers complain they are afraid that if they fail to properly do their job and a child is killed, they could be held responsible. If they fail to do their jobs properly and as a direct result a child dies, they will be held criminally responsible, especially if they falsify records to cover their wrongdoing. This case should be and will be resolved in a Court of Law.”

Arsham said that might be the appropriate view if a child died in foster care with circumstances similar to Marchella.

“When the state presumes to take custody of a child for protective reasons, isn’t there a heightened obligation to provide a safer setting than that from which the child was removed?” Arsham said. “Depending upon the specifics, CWOP members might see this as calling for some serious criminal charges.”

Raquel Arellano is a graduate student at the California-Berkeley School of Social Welfare. She wrote this story as part of her coursework for a class called Journalism for Social Change offered at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

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