9/24/2011

By Neal Shechter, J.D. Candidate

Part I: The Case of Marchella Brett-Pierce

For some, the future of the social work profession is being decided in an unassuming Brooklyn trial court in October, as New York prosecutors sift through a particularly brutal case of child abuse that has received national headlines, and ask the court to assign criminal liability to all those whom prosecutors claim were in a position to prevent the abuse.

For others, the case represents a dramatic step toward accountability and transparency in a system that many feel is broken and beyond repair.

Either way, the story of four-year-old Marchella Brett-Pierce has ignited a firestorm of attention and spawned a seemingly endless stream of litigation over the liability of a city agency and its employees for the wrongs inflicted upon a child by an allegedly negligent and abusive parent.

A Horrific Story

On September 2, 2010, Marchella—then four years old—was found motionless on her mother’s bed with bruises all over her body, weighing just 18 pounds. Four lengths of twine were found on her toddler bed, which Carlotta later admitted to using to tie Marchella down for significant periods of time when she was “acting crazy” and “wilding out.” The coroner’s report described the cause of death as "child abuse syndrome with acute drug poisoning, blunt impact injuries, malnutrition and dehydration."

When she was born in 2006, Marchella Brett-Pierce weighed less than two pounds; her twin sister, born at the same time after just 23 weeks in the womb, had died soon after birth. Her mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, had tested positive for Marijuana while pregnant with Marchella’s younger brother in 2009, and both marijuana and crack cocaine were found in her apartment.

Marchella required a tracheal tube to breathe and was hospitalized in pediatric-care facilities until February of 2010. At that point she moved into an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the most impoverished areas of the country, with her mother and grandmother.

Prosecutors alleged in Carlotta’s indictment that “[b]etween July 12 and Sept. 2, 2010, Brett-Pierce tied Marchella to her bed, battered her with household items, deprived her of food and water and force-fed her over-the-counter medications, including Claritin (a cold medicine) and Diphenaydramine (an anti-histamine."

In November, 2010, Carlotta was charged with second-degree murder.  Marchella’s grandmother, Loretta Brett, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors say she knew that Marchella had been starved, beaten, and tied down, but had done nothing to stop it.  But the charges didn’t stop there. In March, 2011, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes charged Damon Adams, a social worker with New York City’s Administration for Child Services (ACS) who had been responsible for Marchella’s case, and Chereece Bell, Adams’ supervisor at ACS, with criminally negligent homicide.

While many of the factual details of the case against the two social workers are unclear, it is known that Bell became aware of Carlotta Brett-Pierce after she had tested positive for marijuana while pregnant with Marchella’s brother in the fall of 2009. At the time, Bell and ACS contracted with a private outside agency – the Child Development Support Corporation (CDSC) – to monitor Carlotta’s drug treatment and check in on the Brett-Pierce family from time to time.

Then, in March of 2010, a hospital employee called New York’s state child-abuse hotline after Carlotta brought Marchella into the hospital for help with her tracheal tube but then left abruptly, before the staff could properly discharge the child or give Carlotta care instructions.  The state child-abuse hotline labeled the call as “additional information”—a new piece of information to add to an existing case. Because the call was not labeled as a high priority, Bell was not required to open an ACS child abuse investigation.  Nonetheless, Bell assigned the case to Adams, who promptly interviewed Marchella and reported back to Bell that Brett-Pierce had left the hospital because Marchella was hungry and because Brett-Pierce claimed she already knew how to properly care for the tracheal tube.

“Aggressive” Charges

This is the first time that a social worker – let alone a social worker’s supervisor – has been charged with criminally negligent homicide in the State of New York.

Prosecutors first contend that Bell caused Marchella’s death by not launching a full investigation after the call from the hospital.  But at the time that the decision not to investigate was made, an outside agency (CSDC) was supposed to have been already monitoring the family by conducting frequent home visits and oversee the mother’s drug testing. That fact, combined with the positive report from Adams based on his interview with Marchella’s mother, and the fact that the hospital employee’s call to the state’s abuse hotline was given a low-priority “additional information” designation, suggests that there was little or no substantive information before Bell to warrant a full child abuse investigation.

Would a reasonable person, in Chereece Bell’s shoes, have acted differently? And perhaps, more importantly, was Bell’s decision not to investigate so patently unreasonable as to violate her duty of care to Marchella and subject her to criminal liability?

Prosecutors also charge Bell with failing to properly supervise Adams and ensure that he was conducting the home visits he was required to make. “But for her failure, acting in concert with Mr. Adams, this child would have been removed, because the obvious injuries to this child would have mandated removal or at least medical intervention,” Jacqueline Kagan, an Assistant District Attorney at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, said at Bell’s arraignment.  James Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at NYU Law School,told the New York Nonprofit Press that “the big issue is causation.  The prosecution has to prove that negligent conduct by the social workers caused the death of the little girl, or contributed to it.  This is an aggressive prosecution.”  But as a supervisor, Bell oversaw between four and five workers at any given time. The total number of families being monitored by her caseworkers was between 100 or 150 families, or, in other words, as many as 300 or 400 kids.

Bell relied on Adams’ verbal and written reports to assess the situation in the Pierce home. And Adams told Bell that he had gone to Marchella’s home on March 3, April 6, June 9, July 23, and August 12, although he had not entered notes for these visits into the computer. Because Bell had declined to open a new investigation, Adams wasn’t required to follow the typical deadlines for typing up notes. And whenever Bell asked Adams about Marchella’s family, Bell says, Adams would respond: “The kids are fine. When I left, they were eating dinner. They were playing.”

The case against Adams also includes an allegation that he falsified records after Marchella’s death to indicate that he had visited the Pierce home on August 12, which prosecutors allege could not possibly have taken place without Adams noticing Marchella’s condition. But in his defense, Adams’s attorney has put forward evidenceshowing that Marchella visited an ear-nose-and-throat clinic on July 12, 2010 and that the workers there failed to report anything out-of-the ordinary in regard to either child abuse or malnutrition. In addition, CSDC never made the visits to Marchella’s home that it was supposed to have made to check on Carlotta’s drug treatment, either. In fact, without Bell’s knowledge, ACS’s contract with CSDC had actually expired two months prior to Marchella’s death.

A Fearful Profession

Not only is this the first time that social workers have been charged with criminally negligent homicide in New York, it may be the first case of a city-employed social worker being charged with criminally negligent homicide anywhere in the country.

Some predict that the criminal charges will hurt retention of caseworkers by city agencies at the expense of children and families. And the potential for criminal liability might lead social workers to take drastic steps – such as putting children in foster care, before getting an accurate picture of the parental and familial situation.  Martin Guggenheim, a Professor of Law who focuses on child welfare law at New York University, told the New York Times that the homicide charge, “vastly overstates the wrong,” and that the investigation of the agency, subsequent firings, and charges for falsification of documents were sufficiently punitive.

The case against Bell for negligent supervision is particularly troubling for many in the social work profession.

"It's impossible to see into the future about these cases," Andrew White of The New School for Management and Urban Policy told the Associated Press. "It's a lot to take the responsibility for something you're only seeing in hindsight when you're talking about homicide charges,"

At a press conference after the indictments, Faye Moore, president of S.S.E.U. 371, the union that represents many social work employees, said, “What the Brooklyn D.A. has done is indicted our whole profession.”

The case is currently before Justice Patricia DiMango of the Brooklyn Supreme Court. On September 14, 2011, lawyers for Bell and Adams appeared in court and moved to dismiss the charges. Judge DiMango recently said that she would rule on the motions to dismiss in October.  “This will be a seminal case," Judge DiMango said. "The law is always evolving with changes in society."