In another job, Adams’s approach might have earned him accolades. Not here. “Get off the phone!” Bell would holler when she heard him counseling yet another parent whose case had been closed. “We don’t have time for that!” Sometimes she would rip the phone right out of his hand and slam it onto the receiver. “I had to get like that,” she says. Adams was an “excellent” writer, she recalls, but he was chronically behind on his paperwork. “He just wants to do social work; he just wants to counsel you and encourage you. And that’s wonderful,” she says. “But … in that kind of unit, there’s no room for it.”
In many ways, the job of caseworker had become a writing job. Caseworkers are supposed to document everything they do: every phone call, every visit to a family, every conversation with a doctor or teacher or neighbor. There are so many cases coming in—and there’s so much writing to do for each one—that it seemed almost everyone was behind on their paperwork, sometimes weeks behind. To try to stay on top of their cases, workers ate lunch at their desks, stayed at the office until 7 or 8 p.m., and logged in from home.
Adams never griped to his boss about the job, but sometimes he’d say, “We’re not really helping these people, Chereece.” He was not the only worker who felt this way. Caseworkers complained privately that ACS’s managers cared more about paperwork than field visits, that there was so much paperwork to do that they couldn’t possibly visit every child every two weeks—which is what they were supposed to be doing. “If you can do it every two weeks, God love you,” says Kelly Mares, a former caseworker at 185 Marcy. “It just can’t happen.”
As a supervisor, Bell was supposed to keep tabs on all of her workers’ cases. She oversaw four workers, sometimes five. When she added up their cases—active investigations as well as cases that had been referred to Family Court—that could be 100 or 150 families, or as many as 300 or 400 kids. And it wasn’t always the same kids, since the unit’s caseload was changing every day, with new cases coming in and others being closed. Her job was to read the family histories, assign the cases, coach her workers on their investigations, and decide what actions to take.
“I’ve had clients stand up and throw chairs at me, threaten to kill me.”
At any given time, there were always a few cases that had her awake at 4 a.m., lying in bed wracked with worry. Like the baby who’d been left in a sink with running water when suddenly the water turned scalding. (“His whole bottom half was peeled off, and the soles of his feet were completely raw.”) And then there was the toddler who was severely burned and wound up in the ER; just as Bell was about to remove his siblings from their home to prevent further abuse, the mother fled with them to D.C. (“It was the most chaos. All we had left was the one kid in the hospital.”)
About Marchella’s case, Bell says, “In comparison to all the others, that case did not jump out at me … That was not the one that I was afraid something would happen.” Whenever she asked Adams what he’d seen the last time he visited Marchella’s family, Bell says, his response would be something like: “The kids are fine. When I left, they were eating dinner. They were playing.” Since Bell had declined to open a new investigation, Adams didn’t have all the usual deadlines for paperwork. Which meant there was less reason for Bell to be hounding him about getting his notes done on time.
One of the toughest parts of Bell’s job was figuring out which cases were so serious that the kids needed to be taken from their parents. If possible, it’s always best to keep a family intact, but she could never know for sure what happened in a household after one of her caseworkers walked out the door. This was the most maddening part of the job: Even if you clocked 60 or more hours a week, even if you managed to keep track of every case, there was simply no way to stop every parent hellbent on scalding—or killing—their kid. As Bell puts it, “You don’t have any real control over human behavior.”
She would show up some days at 8 a.m., soon after the building opened, rollers still in her hair. Often she’d stay until 8 p.m., when Elvis, the building employee whose job it was to lock up, would start hollering: “All of you, get the hell out!” Most people obeyed him, but there were some nights when Bell and some of her co-workers did not. “We’d go in the bathroom and hide out until he leaves,” she says, “and then we’d come back to our computers and work.”