By now, we should have learned this lesson: In the face of a highly publicized child fatality, the response in guaranteeing the future safety and well-being of children isn't to punish front-line caseworkers and supervisors. Instead, the response should be to assess what actually happened and to fix it -- and "fixing it" almost always means changing practices, improving quality oversight and assurance, and increasing resources.
Still, punishment seems to be the go-to response, and it is clearly among the more powerful motivations driving Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who at the end of March indicted two employees of New York City's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) on manslaughter charges in the death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce. The little girl, who weighed 18 pounds at the end of her life, had been repeatedly beaten and tied to a bed.
It's clear that DA Hynes is sincere in his motivation for this almost unprecedented move, and that at least one ACS employee may have lied about contacts with the Pierce family and altered records after the fact. If that happened, ACS officials should be held accountable for these failures. What needs to be highlighted here isn't what sort of punishment should or shouldn't be meted out, but rather the unintended consequences the manslaughter indictments will have on the behavior of ACS staff up and down the chain of command. While Hynes says he's also convening a special grand jury to investigate what he characterized as "evidence of alleged systemic failures," the blunt message he's sending to ACS employees bears illuminating.
There are two immediate and predictable consequences of Hynes's action, and neither is good. A social worker in upstate New York was offered a job and decided against taking it because of the Pierce case. Would you recommend your daughter, son or neighbor enter the child welfare workforce with this type of threat hanging over their head?
Worse, though, is that child protective service workers will be much less inclined to monitor children in their own homes. "If in doubt, pull them out," will be the sensible response to the new world created by Hynes's actions, and that's not only bad for kids, it's expensive for the city. They'll have to add staff and beef up outreach in foster-parent recruitment, and more children will probably be diverted into expensive and clinically dubious institutional care.
There are two other potentially harmful consequences of Hynes's action. First, other headline-hungry DAs might get the idea that boosting their political careers on the backs of overwhelmed caseworkers might be a fine idea. Second, don't be surprised if you see some push in the New York State Legislature to pass "Marchella's Law," which might require caseworkers to spend a set number of hours in the field visiting clients, and to document all visits in detail. In other words, the result would be to turn child protective services into a 20-hour a day, seven-day-a-week job -- assuming reasonable caseloads.
So I said that Hynes's action was almost unprecedented. In 2006, Philadelphia witnessed a similar scenario. Danieal Kelly, a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy, died from bedsores and malnutrition. As with the New York case, the details will make your blood boil: botched oversight, falsified records and so forth. The fraud perpetrated by child welfare workers was truly appalling.
In the wake of the Philadelphia scandal, real people are doing hard time in jail. You might think this is right and just. But guess what? Philadelphia's system is no better for the prosecutions. Morale among Philadelphia social service and child protective workers is horrible, and the city is one overwhelmed caseworker away from reliving the entire experience all over again.
Therefore, the best end result in New York will be for Hynes to drop the charges, and for the New York State Legislature to pass Marchella's Law, a law that will recognize the almost impossible job faced by a huge majority of the dedicated, hard-working child protective staff and their bosses. The law also will beef up resources and extend protection from prosecution to caseworkers and supervisors, so that they can go about their jobs secure in the knowledge that the state is willing to invest in protecting children and workers.
A colleague summed up what happened in New York best: "Because these employees were fired, they now have to hire their own attorneys, which I'm sure they can't afford. The idea that you could lose your home, go to jail and end up with a felony record because you took a $42,000 a year job to help kids just seems a little harsh."
Correction, April 12, 2011: A previous version of this column misidentified the indicted employees' former agency of employment. That agency is the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS). Governing regrets the error.