Two child welfare workers assigned to the case of a 4-year-old girl found starved, battered and drugged were charged Wednesday in her death, as prosecutors launched an investigation into the troubled agency five years after sweeping reforms were ordered following the grisly beating death of another child.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes said the workers didn't do enough to help Marchella Brett-Pierce, who weighed 18 pounds when she died in September, nearly half the weight of an average 4-year-old. Her mother has pleaded not guilty to murder.
Administration for Children's Services caseworker Damon Adams and supervisor Chereece Bell pleaded not guilty to charges of criminally negligent homicide and official misconduct for allegedly doctoring records after the girl died to reflect they had made home visits. Their lawyers say they are scapegoats for a crime they did not commit.
The case of Marchella, found dead Sept. 2, harkened back to the notorious 2006 case of Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old who died of abuse and malnourishment under the noses of her teachers and ACS workers. No caseworkers were charged in her death, but the agency undertook a series of changes: Additional caseworkers were hired, coordination with other city agencies increased, a new case tracking system was implemented and the city beefed up its contribution to the agency's budget.
But Hynes questioned Wednesday whether those changes had worked and ordered a special grand jury to consider evidence of possible "systemic failure" at the child welfare agency.
Bell's attorney, Joshua Horowitz, said she had to supervise more than 40 cases at one time, including some of the neediest, most dire families, after budget cuts reduced oversight. He said she complained to her superiors but received no additional help. Both attorneys said their clients were ordered by their bosses after the girl's death to record visits to the family's home that they say occurred, but were never put in the computer.
The number of investigations into new reports of abuse and/or neglect has increased each year since 2006, to reach a high of 65,114 in fiscal year 2010, according to the Mayor's Management Report. But the agency says caseloads are still low _ on average 9.1 per worker last fiscal year, down from 16.6 in fiscal year 2006.
As the cases increase, funding cuts have forced agency's budget to shrink once again. Money from the city has decreased in the years since the agency's reforms were introduced. The city contributed $900,507 to the agency in fiscal year 2007, compared with $710,425 in fiscal 2010. The overall budget, $2.7 million in fiscal year 2007, remained steady at $2.8 million.
ACS said in a statement that its leaders were concerned that the indictments may negatively affect the agency because they would discourage "excellent idealistic individuals" from taking jobs there. It didn't respond to questions on budget cutbacks, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office referred questions to the agency.
"ACS has a single overarching mission to protect abused and neglected children in New York City. Our staff live up to this difficult and heartbreaking challenge every day," the agency said in the statement. "Yet when we fail, it can be with tragic results, which we try to learn from and make adjustments. ... When staff have failed to carry out their basic responsibilities, ACS will and does take appropriate action."
The two workers in Marchella's case were suspended and then resigned in October. Adams had been at the agency a few years. Bell, herself a mother of two, had been at the agency 12 years, working her way up from a caseworker to a supervisor, and earning a master's degree in social work.
"They should be seeing a hero," Horowitz said. "Not a despicable person."
Adams was charged with adding at least five reports that he had visited the home. Prosecutors say he couldn't have visited because if he had, he would've seen Marchella's very visible injuries.
ACS became involved with the family after Carlotta Brett-Pierce gave birth to a boy who tested positive for drugs. Marchella had been born premature with underdeveloped lungs and had serious trouble breathing. She had a breathing tube in her throat and was allowed home for the first time from the hospital in February, when she weighed 26 pounds.
By the time of her death, she had wasted away. She had been tied to her bed for days, beaten and had up to 30 adult doses of Benadryl and 60 doses of Claritin in her system at her death, prosecutors said. She died from battered child syndrome, Hynes said.
Marchella's grandmother, Loretta Brett, was also charged Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to manslaughter. Her attorney said the woman was a caregiver and had tried to raise the children in the home, and didn't know about the abuse.
Judge Patricia DiMango set steep bail for all charged, noting the gravity of the case.
Nixzmary's mother is serving a prison sentence of up to 43 years for failing to act as her battered, malnourished child lay dying in their home. Her stepfather is serving 29 years on a manslaughter conviction for delivering the fatal blow.
Associated Press writer Samantha Gross contributed to this report.