At the same time, however, Bell was determined to avoid the fate of her former supervisor. One of Bell’s caseworkers recalls that, in the late afternoon, Bell would lean across her desk and lock eyes with her. “Don’t you think you should go make a visit to that family tonight?” she’d ask, all the while nodding so vigorously that there was no doubt what the answer should be. Often she reminded her workers of the consequences of not being thorough enough: “You’re not going to make me lose my job,” she’d say. “You’re not going to have my face on the front page of the news.” Some workers complained that she made them work even harder than she had worked when she was a caseworker. But her superiors seemed to appreciate her approach. On January 7, 2010, she won an award from the agency’s commissioner: a wooden plaque commending her for her “extraordinary efforts to protect children.”
Marchella Pierce weighed less than two pounds when she was born in the spring of 2006, after just 23 weeks of gestation. (Her twin sister died soon after birth.) To breathe, Marchella required a tracheal tube. She spent most of her life in pediatric-care facilities, until February 9, 2010, when she moved in with her mother, grandmother, and two brothers in an apartment in Bed-Stuy. The next month, a hospital employee dialed the state’s child-abuse hotline: Marchella’s mother had brought her into the hospital for help with her tracheal tube but then left abruptly, without the discharge plan, before the staff could give her instructions on how to care for it.
The case landed on Bell’s desk on March 3, 2010. She didn’t know Marchella, but she did know Marchella’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, who was then 29. The previous fall, another hospital official had called in a report after Brett-Pierce tested positive for marijuana while giving birth. Bell had met with Brett-Pierce, confronted her about smoking pot while pregnant, and told her she’d have to go for regular drug testing. She wasn’t happy to hear this, but she eventually agreed to go. (Not going would have put her at risk of losing her newborn.) Then Bell transferred the case to another part of ACS that monitors families who receive services from an outside agency.
But now, four months later, the family was back. This time, Bell assigned them to the caseworker who was next in line to receive a new case: Damon Adams. He set out to piece together what had happened at the hospital, and reported back what the mother had told him: She’d become agitated and impatient because Marchella was hungry; she had other children at home she had to hurry back to; and she’d already been taught elsewhere how to care for the tracheal tube. To Bell, this sounded reasonable. At least the mother had brought her daughter to the hospital when she needed care. That was a good sign.
Unlike almost every case Bell received, this one did not include an allegation of abuse. A worker at the state’s child-abuse hotline had labeled the call as “additional information”—a new piece of information to add to an existing case. This meant the call was not a high priority, and Bell was not required to open up a new investigation. She could have if she’d thought it necessary, but she decided not to. It was a decision her superiors would later criticize.
At the time, Bell knew that an outside agency was already monitoring the family. What she didn’t know was that this agency, the Child Support Development Corporation, had been the subject of a damning report by the city’s comptroller two years earlier. Nevertheless, the agency still had a contract with ACS; its workers were supposed to do frequent home visits and oversee the mother’s drug testing.
Now Adams, too, was supposed to visit the family every two weeks and type his notes into the computer. That, at least, was the agency’s official policy.
Damon Adams had joined the agency as a “child protective specialist” in 2006. A native of Harlem and the South Bronx, he attended the Taft School in Connecticut and earned a B.A. and master’s from Tufts, where he was captain of the football team. When the Tufts Daily profiled him in 1994, the then-20-year-old described his future plans: “I want to go back to my old neighborhood and maybe work as a social worker, to help underprivileged kids.”
Inside 185 Marcy, he displayed an ability to coax even the most traumatized child to open up. When children came to the office, he’d get down on the floor and play with them. If a kid mentioned he was struggling in math, Adams would tell him to fetch his homework, then sit beside him and start tutoring. Parents called him for assistance long after he had stopped being their caseworker. And sometimes children sneaked into the office to see him, kids he had once removed from their families. Other caseworkers occasionally got calls from parents they no longer supervised, but visits from kids they’d removed? That was unheard of.