The decision to arrest two ACS workers all but guarantees headlines for the D.A.’s office. As far as anyone knows, this marks the first time in New York City history that child-welfare workers have been indicted in connection with the death of a child on their caseload. Bell and Adams appear all over the media: local TV news, the tabloids, the front page of the New York Times. In all the photos, they look sullen and sleep-deprived—every bit the stereotypical tabloid criminals.
By the afternoon of March 23, Chereece Bell—mom of two, graduate of Brooklyn College, onetime city supervisor—has tumbled to the bottom of the city’s social ladder, joining that sorry parade of accused criminals being led out of the courthouse and onto buses bound for Rikers Island. Never mind that she doesn’t know exactly why she is being taken to jail. Nor does she understand how she could be charged with the murder of a girl she never met. But those questions will have to wait. First, she has a more urgent problem: figuring out how to make her $25,000 bail, so she can get back home to her children.
Each year, the state’s child-abuse hotline receives almost 60,000 reports of children being abused or neglected in New York City. A worker takes down the information, then sends it to ACS, which funnels each case to a field office in one of the five boroughs. The cases involving kids in “Zone B”—which includes all or parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint—get routed to the office at 185 Marcy Avenue, a rundown brick building that sits across from a housing project in Williamsburg. In agency shorthand, this field office is known as “185 Marcy.”
Ask the caseworkers who toil in this building, and they will say the zone they cover is the toughest in all of Brooklyn. Poverty, crack addiction, domestic violence, untreated mental illness—there seems to be an especially high concentration of every social ill. And there are many, many families with an ACS history spanning the generations: It’s not unusual to go out and interview a mother suspected of abuse, only to discover that she was removed from her own home as a child.
Until the fall of 2010, Bell worked on the fifth floor here, overseeing four caseworkers. In the view of many of her colleagues, she had the most difficult job in the building: supervisor of the Hospital/Sex Abuse Unit. (The unit handles both sex-abuse cases and cases of children who’ve been admitted to a hospital.) While workers in other units were following up on suspicious scratches and bruises, her workers were investigating cases of kids with third-degree burns, subdural hematomas, broken limbs, fractured skulls. As one worker puts it, “It’s like being on the SWAT team.”
Bell had joined the agency on June 5, 2000, not long after graduating from college. She started as a caseworker—the official title is “child protective specialist”—and was assigned to the unit that then investigated the most-severe cases. “I had no idea how serious it would be,” she recalls. It didn’t take too many nights of trudging through Bed-Stuy in the dark, rapping on doors, to find out. And then, on January 11, 2006, a 7-year-old girl on a co-worker’s caseload was found dead in a Bed-Stuy apartment, killed by her stepfather. The victim’s name was Nixzmary Brown.
As it turned out, ACS had received two prior reports of possible abuse—yet hadn’t taken sufficient action to prevent her death. Eight months earlier, a guidance counselor had reported that Nixzmary had missed 46 days of school and, when she did show up, had a burn on her hand. Seven months after that, her school called again: Nixzmary had come in with a black eye and a two-inch cut above it. When the caseworker went to her house to investigate, the stepfather wouldn’t let her in—and she never got a court order to gain entry. A month later, Nixzmary was dead. It was a textbook case of what could go wrong if you didn’t aggressively tackle every suspected abuse case. A caseworker and two supervisors lost their jobs.
In 2009, when Bell was offered the job overseeing the Hospital/Sex Abuse Unit, everyone told her the same thing: Don’t do it. Those who had been around when Nixzmary Brown was killed were especially emphatic. Back then, Bell had been a caseworker in the same unit that was supposed to be monitoring Nixzmary’s family; she knew as well as anyone what had happened. But the intensity of working in a high-risk unit appealed to her. The more serious the allegations of abuse, the more she felt like she was accomplishing something. And, at age 33, she was flattered that the bosses had offered her this position, even if nobody else in the building wanted it.