If You Could Change One Thing

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The death of Marchella Brett-Pierce made headline news in New York City. (Graphic by Saskia de Rothschild)
The death of Marchella Brett-Pierce made headline news in New York City. (Graphic by The Brooklyn Ink.)

By Saskia Rothschild and Lillian Rizzo
A sea of red invaded Brooklyn Supreme Court one recent Wednesday—50 child welfare caseworkers dressed in red shirts and sweaters. They called themselves the bleeding hearts of child welfare.

They had come to court, however, not on behalf of a child, but to show their support for one of their own—Damon Adams, a caseworker on trial for criminal negligent homicide for the death of a child on his watch.

Marchella Brett-Pierre was found bound to her bed and starved to death last September, prosecutors said. She was 4 years old and weighed only 18 pounds, half the normal weight of a child that age. Marchella was also born prematurely and medically fragile. She only spent one year out of the hospital and had to be fed through a tracheal tube. Marchella’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, 30, and grandmother, Loretta Brett, 56, are also on trial for the death of Marchella.

Since Marchella was on Adams’s watch, he and his supervisor, Cereece Bell, were brought into the picture. Six months later, Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles Hynes, indicted them for murder. No caseworker in New York State had ever been charged with homicide.

When a child dies, the press, the public and elected officials usually look closely at the ACS system. But after the initial outrage—and the cries for reform and investigations—the story typically vanishes, leaving many questions unanswered, chief among them: What can be done to prevent another tragedy?

As Adams’s trial continues, The Ink decided to seek out several people with intimate knowledge of the child welfare system: a foster care child, two caseworkers, two lawyers, and a journalist-turned-advocate.

We asked each of them the same question: If you could change one thing in the child welfare system, what would it be?

The Foster Care Child

“If there’s no compassion, it won’t change,” —Former foster care child and contributor to Represent.

She is just over 19-years-old and was placed in the foster care system for two years. Now, after returning home to her parent, she is a writer for Represent, a publication run by Youth Communication with contributors who are former foster care kids.

If she could change one thing about the child welfare system, she says, it would be compassion: caseworkers need more of it. “I know it’s not the easiest job, but it’s not something you can continue to do if your heart isn’t in it,” she said. (For privacy reasons, The Ink is refraining to publish her name).

Foster care is an option for ACS workers when they are caught between the choices of keeping a child in her home or to remove her.  Although welfare workers do not look at foster care as their first option, it may be seen as the solution if the child’s environment is deemed unfit.

The number of children in foster care “in freed status,” meaning they are awaiting placement, remains about the same every month throughout the year. The most recent number, for Jan. 2011, was 1,722 children, ranging in age from infancy to over 12- years-old.

The Caseworkers

“I always say ‘If someone can walk a day in an ACS worker’s shoes—go with us to hospitals, courts, homes—they will know’,” —ACS caseworker Jacqueline Ramos, 51.

Jacqueline Ramos says she never hated a job until now. Originally she worked with the New York City Police Department in civilian services, mostly doing administrative tasks. She says she loved the job and the people she worked with.

About 10 years ago she decided to make the switch to ACS and was placed in the Marcy Avenue unit in Bedford Stuyvesant, the same location where Damon Adams worked. “I saw this job and thought I could really make a difference,” she said. “And then I realized the things they were asking were impossible to do.”

The two things Ramos would change at ACS are the management and the caseloads. She recognizes the difficulties of the job but says if the caseloads were decreased there wouldn’t be any problems. The average caseload per worker in February was about 10. Caseloads per borough have fluctuated between 7.8 and 10.9 every month since 2009.

But Ramos says the caseloads in statistics don’t match what the workers are actually given. She says aside from the nine cases reported there are still check-up visits and court cases to follow. “If I just had nine cases there would be no mistakes, then I’d really have time for every one,” she said. “But we end up having like 22.”

For every case Ramos says she takes about two hours for her initial visit. ACS states it should be a smaller amount of time. When assigned a case the first thing she does is look up the history of the family. The next step is getting through their front door. “They’re yelling and screaming, they don’t know why we are there,” she said.

Her colleague, Carmen Ramos, has worked for ACS for about 10 years and recently switched to

the Emergency Child Services unit. “Marcy field office looks like a factory and there’s rat infestation,” Carmen said shaking her head. She worked at the field office briefly.

Carmen and Jacqueline agree the workload at Marcy is a lot to handle. “You have to fight tooth and nail to get transferred out,” said Jacqueline Ramos. “And you know why? Because no one wants to transfer into Marcy.”

Carmen Ramos says if she could change one thing it would be to add more assistants. She says if they were given a hand with their cases, everything would get done adequately and on time. She added that before caseworkers enter the field they are trained-—in her view almost too much. She remembers lists of what to look for in homes and picture guides of bruises to determine how long they’ve been on the child. Carmen looks out for the signs, along with Jacqueline, who says while she is talking to the parent or child she is scanning the room and mentally noting everything. But the better guide is experience. “It comes down to experience and reading people,” said Carmen.

The plight of the caseworker is a familiar one to Jane Spinak, a clinical law professor at Columbia University’s law school.  “Being a field caseworker is the hardest job in the agency and it is being given to the least experienced people,” said Spinak. “Working on the frontlines should be a promotion.”

But she takes a different stance about training. Spinak believes a field worker should be required to have at least a masters degree in social work plus five years of experience in other areas of the agency before entering ACS’s investigative front line.

“You can’t ask a 22-year-old with no experience to be making the most important and hard decisions in front of an angry distressed family,” she said. “Parents see the worker and they think, ‘What does this child know?’”

The Lawyer

“This is not child welfare, it’s child policing. Right now, what caseworkers do, is be police officers writing reports and checking off lists.” —Martin Guggenheim, Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law at NYU

The usual complaints about the child welfare system are almost always linked to numbers: there are either too many cases per worker, too few workers per field agency or just too little money for ACS. But for Martin Guggenheim, the problem is “more macro.”

“Our child welfare has no services. It does policing, investigating. But once that’s done, the workers have nothing to do.”

With 65 percent of the calls to the ACS hotline turning out to be unfounded, “two thirds of a caseworker’s time is spent on investigating unfounded cases and turning them down to do nothing,” he said. “It’s as if the fire department was called to put out fires but in two thirds of the cases there are no fires. At least the fire department brings water, the ACS brings nothing.”

To change this, Guggenheim recommends separating investigations from services. “When a case is not worthy of prosecution, it should be given over to a helping agency,” he said.

Integrating and linking child welfare with other health and education services is also a way of changing the negative image with which ACS is regarded in so many poor communities.

For most people, he continued, having a child welfare worker knocking at your door is the worst thing that can happen; it is even worse than the police. For Guggenheim, this is unfortunate, because the caseworker is presumably there to help; the families that ACS serves should be grateful. “People run from child welfare at the moment,” he said.

“To receive child welfare services in America, you have to be found inadequate by a court, you have to behave badly,” he said. That’s the problem; linking help to bad conduct. “We shouldn’t ask ‘Are you unfit’ to decide if we serve you, we should ask ‘what do you need?’”

The Press

“This is a typical case of ‘foster care panic’, nothing influences how many children are taken from their parents more than whether there was a highly publicized and dramatized death of a child ‘known-to the-system’. Usually this creates a spike in children removals. For the worker, it’s an act of self preservation: ‘Take the child and run.’” —Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

If Richard Wexler could change one thing it would be the way the press covers child welfare, the families and the agencies. ACS only receives attention when a child dies and that, according to Richard Wexler, is the problem. “The only mistake people know about is when a child was left at home, never when he was wrongfully removed,” he said. “You never see the bigger picture; that the ACS is sometimes arbitrary, capricious and cruel.”

Wexler compares media coverage of child welfare to a Loch Ness Monster explorer. “When you see a picture of a blurry neck sticking out of the water, you confuse the part you see for the entire thing,” he said. “In the media, you only read about the death of children in their homes so you accuse the system of wanting to keep families together. But you can’t understand the nature of the beast unless you drain the loch.”

Wexler has a background in journalism and, as the director of the National Coalition for Child Protective reform, he makes a point of conducting case studies about the press and child welfare. The media, he says, cover foster care “as if they were on a crusade, only looking for one answer.”

The main culprits, he said, are the reporters who start digging into the issue when a child dies; “They come in with a righteous indignation and they only look for opinions that follow the overarching philosophy that ACS is trying to keep families together at all cost, failing to take care of children that should be removed.”

Too often, he says, they fail to examine the complexities of the problem as if, in a story about criminal justice, you only interviewed prosecutors and completely ignored defense attorneys. “How many articles on child welfare go ask parents what they think? None,” he said.

Reporters, he says, need to broaden the range of their sources. Another solution would be to end the secrecy surrounding cases, he says. That would help reporters get the full story. “Everyone has a master narrative,” he said. “That is the set of beliefs and attitudes the reporter walks in with. When covering child welfare, you have to be on guard about letting it direct you.”

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