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The Knock at the Door

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As soon as she heard the news about Marchella’s death, Bell called Adams. “Of course I was absolutely hysterical,” she says. “We were both crying. We cried the whole day.” Within hours, the two were interrogated by their bosses—and the interrogation continued over the next few days. Adams said he had gone to Marchella’s home on March 3, April 6, June 9, July 23, and August 12, although he had not entered notes for these visits into the computer. Bell produced a spiral notebook with just a few handwritten notes about the case.

As it turned out, the outside agency that was supposed to be monitoring Marchella’s family had failed to make all its required visits, too. It had lost its contract with ACS three months earlier because of “performance issues,” according to a subsequent report. Instead of transferring the family’s case directly to another outside agency for monitoring, ACS’s managers had kept it in the overtaxed Hospital Unit.

But no matter what explanations Bell could offer, she knew it was only a matter of time until she was out of a job. As the agency saying goes, “You’re only as good as your last case.” And this case—a horrific death that had made the news, combined with no notes in the computer—was a career-killer, no matter how well respected a supervisor she might be. What she never could have anticipated—what she never could have imagined, since it had never happened before—was that she’d end up being arrested, too, imprisoned along with Marchella’s mother and grandmother in the women’s jail on Rikers Island.

When news of Bell’s and Adams’s arrests reached their former co-workers, the sounds of workers sobbing echoed through 185 Marcy. They studied every news story they could find and discovered that Adams was looking at a possible seven years in prison, while Bell faced up to four years. Two days later, hundreds of furious ACS workers joined lunchtime rallies outside their offices, organized by their union. “Stop the blame!” they shouted. “The D.A. doesn’t know!” Two weeks later, some 500 workers gathered in front of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, chanting and wielding posters. One popular slogan: “Who’s next? Could be you. Could be me.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg, with ACS’s then-commissioner John Mattingly by his side, was telling reporters that the workers’ average caseload was only ten families—less than the national average. This enraged the workers even more, since they all knew this calculation didn’t reflect their entire workload. It includes only active investigations, but not court cases. After an investigation goes to court—often because ACS is trying to get custody of a kid—the case can still stay on a worker’s plate for months, requiring the worker to trek to Family Court, do more paperwork, and sometimes visit the home.

And, as everyone knows, anytime you have to go to Family Court, you’re at the mercy of a notoriously inefficient system. Compared with his co-workers, Adams had “a really bad draw,” as Rae Phillips, a caseworker in the Hospital Unit, puts it. Co-workers recall Adams was in court three or four days a week, sometimes more than once a day. “That’s where all your time goes,” Phillips says. Bell estimates that at the end, Adams had fourteen open investigations and at least twenty court cases. When he was interrogated after Marchella’s death, Adams said his caseload totaled about 40.

To try to keep the computer files on his cases up-to-date, Adams would sneak into the office on Sundays to work. But even that did not seem to be enough. So he did the only thing he could to carve out more time: put in for vacation. If you took a one-week vacation, your supervisor wouldn’t assign you any new cases in the two and a half days before you left, which meant you’d have that time to enter your old notes into the computer. Adams even went one step further and came into the office during his week off. “At the time, I didn’t realize that was why he was taking vacation,” Bell says. “It wasn’t until after all this happened that I realized that was only for him to catch up.”

Wednesdays in Justice Patricia ­DiMango’s courtroom are unofficially known as “crimes against children day.” On a Wednesday morning in June, the defendants include Bianca Haughton, a 16-year-old with dyed copper hair, a green tank top and short skirt, who is charged with having sexual contact with a 5-year-old cousin; Inayat Rahman, an elderly, five-foot-five man in a Muslim skullcap, wrists cuffed behind him, accused of having sexual relations with a 7-year-old girl he was tutoring; and Angel Casado, wearing jeans and handcuffs, accused of not getting medical help for his 5-year-old daughter after her mother beat her so badly her ear resembled a cauliflower. Seated in the back row, waiting for her own turn before the judge, is Chereece Bell.


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