On a spring afternoon, Chereece Bell scrambles to finish the laundry before her 12-year-old son comes home from school. She wears a tank top and sweatpants, rollers in her hair, no shoes or socks or bra. A package of chicken sits on the counter, waiting to be cooked. There had seemed to be no point in getting dressed up today; nobody was stopping by. Or at least that’s what she thought until 3:30 p.m., when somebody taps on the door. Through the peephole, she glimpses a woman holding up a badge. A cop? What is she doing here? She must have the wrong apartment.
“What do you want?” Bell asks through the door.
“I’m a detective,” the woman says. “I’m from the D.A.’s office.”
“Open the door.”
In the hallway, Bell discovers not just one officer but four: two women and two big guys. They urge her to let them in: “Your neighbor’s door is open. We don’t want to put your business out in the street.”
What business? Bell, 34, grew up in this apartment in Flatbush and now shares it with her longtime boyfriend Shawn, their two kids, a cat named Milk, and a dog named Louie. Until a few months ago, she’d worked as a supervisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. Her only knowledge about the criminal justice system came from the times she’d worked alongside the police, helping lock up parents who abused their kids.
“We have a warrant for Chereece Bell’s arrest.”
Bell glances at the folder in the officer’s hand and sees her date of birth written in black marker. She demands to see the warrant, and the officer shows her a document that looks legitimate. Maybe, she starts to think, all of this has something to do with Marchella Pierce. Marchella was the 4-year-old girl whose mother allegedly killed her in the fall of 2010. The death sparked a minor media frenzy when it was discovered the girl had been horribly malnourished, weighing just eighteen pounds when she died.
At the time, Bell supervised the unit at ACS that was supposed to be monitoring Marchella’s family. After Marchella’s death, an investigation found that the caseworker she had assigned to the case appeared to have paid little attention to it. Both Bell and the caseworker were forced to resign. That was almost six months ago. But none of this explains why now, on the afternoon of March 22, 2011, there are four officers standing in her apartment. “Hurry up. Put on your shoes. Let’s go. If we leave right now, we can have you in front of a judge this evening, so you don’t have to sleep in jail.”
Bell struggles to pull on a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of Uggs, all the while fighting back tears. Scary thoughts flash through her mind: I can’t let my son come home and see this scene. And: I can’t go to jail with glasses on and look like a nerd and get beat up. She manages to put in one contact lens—but not the other—before the officers hustle her out the door.
She spends the rest of the afternoon and the night on a metal bench in a chilly, windowless room at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, her left wrist cuffed to the wall. As far as she can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any big hurry to get her in front of a judge. That night, she barely sleeps. Two officers enter in the morning, put her in shackles—cuffs around her wrists, metal chain around her waist—and take her to State Supreme Court. As they approach the front door, she prays she doesn’t see anyone she knows. She’s walked across this same entryway many times, en route to testify against abusive parents. Family Court is right next door.
The officers whisk her up to the fifteenth floor, and when the elevator doors open, she does indeed spot a familiar face: Damon Adams, 36, her former underling at ACS who had been the caseworker for Marchella’s family. He’s in handcuffs too. And just when it seems the morning can’t get any worse, it does. Nearby, Bell spies a scrum of media: TV cameramen aiming their lenses at her, photographers flashing away. As the officers lead her down the hall, she hunches her shoulders and trains her eyes on the floor.
At a press conference earlier that day, Brooklyn district attorney Charles J. Hynes had announced he was charging both Bell and Adams with criminally negligent homicide, among other crimes. “Baby Marchella might be alive today had these ACS workers attended to her case with the basic levels of care it deserved,” he said.