Criminalizing caregivers

March 31, 2011

Don Lash reports on the recent indictment of child protective workers and what it says about the child welfare system.

ON MARCH 25, unionized workers at the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS) demonstrated outside the agency's headquarters to protest the indictment of a child protective investigator and his supervisor for criminally negligent homicide.

The charges followed the horrific death of a 4-year-old child with severe disabilities who had apparently been beaten, bound and starved. Her mother has been charged with murder.

Prosecutors allege that, during the approximately eight months the child was subject to monitoring by ACS, the child protective worker assigned made inadequate attempts to gain access to the home, and that he falsified entries into a computer database indicating visits he had not made.

His immediate supervisor is alleged to have provided inadequate supervision. It's not clear what facts will emerge, and the attorney for the child protective worker has stated that the worker was instructed by superiors higher up the chain to make the false entries. Both the child protective worker and his supervisor have since resigned from the agency.

Damon Adams and Chereese Bell, the ACS case worker and supervisor indicted in Marchella Pierce's case
Damon Adams and Chereese Bell, the ACS case worker and supervisor indicted in Marchella Pierce's case

In New York City and beyond, media sources have reported that the indictments are historic in being the first time homicide charges have been brought against child welfare workers for negligent performance of their duties.

Front-line child protective workers do an incredibly demanding and stressful job, with high standards for success and tragic consequences for failure. It's entirely possible that the worker in this case did not meet expectations, and that his supervisor failed to properly monitor his work.

It may also be that systemic failures contributed to the breakdown, and that these need to be investigated and addressed. It is far from clear that the criminalizing the failure of child protective workers to prevent a tragedy is a sensible response.

Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn District Attorney, who has made two unsuccessful runs for higher office, made an extraordinary admission in his statement announcing the indictments. He said that the child "might be alive had these ASC workers attended to her case with the basic level of care it deserved."

In other words, after asserting through the indictment that the negligence of the workers was the proximate cause of the child's death, he undermined the assertion by admitting that he can't prove his case.

Perhaps he wants quick pleas to lesser charges, or cooperative witnesses who will name other city employees (or both), or perhaps he wants to draw attention away from a lawsuit filed against his office in federal court last month.

Jabbar Collins, a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1995, filed an action against Hynes, his top prosecutor and his office for withholding exculpatory evidence and perpetrating a 15-year cover-up which kept him in jail, until a judge vacated his conviction and Hynes quietly dismissed the charges.

Bringing an historic prosecution against line staff at a city agency allows Hynes to appear as the protector of children rather than as an official who stolidly defended a false conviction. There are issues that go far beyond the motivation of the district attorney.

THE CHILD welfare system--including foster care, preventive services and juvenile justice services--is an elaborate safety valve for a city in which, according to the Citizens' Committee for Children, 29 percent of black children and 35 percent of Latino children lived in poverty in 2008, before the depths of the recession.

The numbers are even more shocking for younger children. A year earlier, 66 percent of black infants and 71 percent of Latino infants were born into poor families. In 2008, black and Latino children accounted for 86 percent of children entering foster care in the city.

At a time when the city's children are poor and getting poorer, and ACS is poised for a further round of budget cuts, the criminalization of child welfare workers seems consistent with a theme.

Just as teachers are being blamed for the failure of urban schools to close testing gaps, social workers must be to blame when a parent causes the death of her child. The fact that the parent had mental health needs that may have been inadequately met, and that she had a history of substance abuse that may not have been adequately treated can be forgotten, because there is a city worker available to take the blame.

Not surprisingly, New York's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been unwilling to criticize the action by the district attorney. In his statement in response, he said that when someone gets indicted, "everybody thinks about it."

The mayor, along with the Democratic governor, supports the expiration of the "Millionaire's Tax," a surcharge on taxpayers with over $1 million in taxable income, because, he states, it will cause wealthy New Yorkers to leave. The fact that the tax is already in place and what is being proposed is its extension doesn't faze the mayor.

He has yet to explain why they haven't left yet, and are apparently waiting for the tax to be extended to do so. This comes at a time when brutal cuts are contemplated to education, housing, children's services and Medicaid.

It's noteworthy that at the Left Forum on March 18-20, New York City's largest gathering of people involved in struggles for social justice, there were more than 200 panel topics. Not a single one directly engaged the child welfare system. There were discussions of housing, health care and education, among many others, but not the child welfare industry.

The fault for that lies not in the Left Forum, which can only facilitate discussion of what is happening, but it means that those of us who are in the system are not doing nearly enough to connect with broader discussions of childhood poverty and the growing income inequality.

THERE HAS been progress in child welfare in New York, and a great many people are working to improve the system's performance, in terms of enhancing child safety, preventing kids from languishing in long-term care, promoting school stability (decreasing the likelihood that entry into care or a change of homes will result in a change of schools), and in using real-time data to identify gaps and flaws.

At least in the short-term, that work will continue, budget cuts and indictments notwithstanding. These efforts are vital, and should be respected, but that doesn't diminish the fact that they are simply attempting to make the safety valve operate as efficiently as it possibly can.

Those who work in the child welfare industry are isolated from the broader social justice movement, and segmented from one another by division into systems within systems. The real constituency of the system--children and families--are similarly isolated and segmented.

Where organizing occurs, it has become institutionalized within the system, as a "deliverable" under a government contract. A certain amount of money is paid to "organize" birth parents, a certain amount for foster parents (the unpaid labor of the system), a certain amount for youth.

These programs can and do perform a valuable function in bringing the perspective of these groups into improving the system, but they can't bring their participants into discussions of the radical change needed to address the cause of the existence of the industry in its current size and form.

Perhaps the threat posed by the criminalization of child welfare work will encourage workers in the industry to seek to connect with those similarly threatened and embattled in education, health care and affordable housing.

Perhaps the youth and challenged families the system is supposed to protect and nurture, and the foster parents who provide the homes to those children for whom the city has taken responsibility, will see that it's in their interest to connect for radical change with their neighbors struggling with homelessness, unemployment and the threat to public education.

If the Brooklyn indictments are a catalyst for the beginning of this discussion, some good will have come of an all-too-familiar tragedy.

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