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The Knock at the Door

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Bell at her arraignment on March 23.   

Part of the problem was that Bell was doing two jobs. In the past, two supervisors would oversee each unit: the “Sup 1” (pronounced “Soup 1”) and “Sup 2.” The Sup 2 was the head supervisor, while the Sup 1 provided assistance. But in recent years, as the agency endured repeated budget cuts, many units in this building and elsewhere had to make do with just one supervisor: a Sup 2.

This was the case in the Hospital/Sex Abuse Unit. When Bell complained that she needed the help of a Sup 1—and pointed out that another Sup 2 in the office had been given a Sup 1—she says the bosses told her: “Oh, Chereece, you’re good. She needs a Sup 1; you don’t need a Sup 1.” As one caseworker puts it: “When you’re a strong worker, they pile the work on top of you and on top of you.”

During the days, meetings ate up much of Bell’s time. Often these were “child-safety conferences”—the brainchild of the agency’s then-commissioner—in which supervisors and caseworkers met with parents before going to court, often to ask the judge to remove the children. In theory, the purpose of these meetings was to give everyone a chance to discuss what would be in the children’s best interests, with the parents included in the conversation. In practice, caseworkers say, the decision about whether to remove a kid is almost always made ahead of time, rendering these meetings virtually useless. “A fantastic idea, terrible in actuality,” says Mares, the former caseworker. “A monumental suck of time.”

Bell often had two of these conferences a day, maybe three, each lasting one and a half to two hours, sometimes even longer. All the while, phone calls are flooding into her voice-mail—she had two phone lines and no Sup 1 to answer them—and the paperwork was piling up. To a friend in the office, she’d say: “How am I supposed to get anything done with all these fucking conferences?”

These meetings not only consumed much of her time but also left her emotionally drained. No parent wants to hear that they’re about to lose custody of their kids. “I’ve had clients stand up and throw chairs at me, threaten to kill me,” Bell says. There was even a protocol used by the meeting’s facilitator to prevent violent outbursts. “If they take out the red paper, it’s like a signal to everyone in the room, to staff, that we’re going to have to reach out and call security because this mom is becoming that irate,” Bell says.

Her complaints about not having a Sup 1, about how many meetings she had to attend, about the piles of paperwork she had to plow through—much later, all of it would somehow seem to explain what happened next. On the morning of September 2, 2010, while she was hurrying to Family Court to testify in a case, Bell got a call from a colleague who had just heard the news from the NYPD: A child had died inside an apartment in Bed-Stuy.

This time, the dead child was Bell’s responsibility: Marchella Pierce.

The autopsy photos show a horribly emaciated girl, ribs almost poking through her skin, cheeks deeply sunken, with abrasions on her ankles and bruises on her face. When the police had stepped inside the family’s apartment early that morning, they’d found her already dead, lying in the same bedroom where a SpongeBob toddler bed stood with ropes tied to each end. There was a jump rope attached to the head of the bed, dark twine at the bottom.

According to a police report, the mother admitted she’d tied down her daughter the day before because she wouldn’t take a nap: “She was acting crazy and her little ass was wilding out.” Prosecutors later accused the mother of also force-feeding her daughter Benadryl and Claritin, beating her with a belt and a DVD case, and depriving her of food. Marchella had weighed 26 pounds when she returned to her family in February. When she died seven months later, she weighed just eighteen pounds.

Carlotta Brett-Pierce was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. (Later, the girl’s grandmother Loretta Brett would be arrested too and charged with manslaughter.) At the same time, the higher-ups at ACS launched their own investigation. But when they went into the computer system to find out what their workers had been doing, they found almost nothing—just a couple brief entries from the caseworker and no notes from the supervisor.

It was every ACS worker’s worst nightmare: A child dies on your caseload, the bosses comb through the file and find it seriously lacking. Or, as in this case, nearly nonexistent. Everybody knows that when a child dies, all that matters is what actions you recorded in the central computer system—not what actions you may have taken. The agency’s unofficial mantra: “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.”


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