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.

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

"The exposed natural gas lines in a child’s bedroom constituted serious hazards to the children’s health and safety."

The @HHSGov inspector general recommends using Medicaid records to review mandated child abuse reporting. The details of the report suggest otherwise #childwelfare