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The Knock at the Door

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The wait goes on for more than an hour until finally, at 11:16 a.m., the clerk calls her name. She walks up to the defense table in a gray skirt suit, patent-leather heels, hoop earrings, hair swept up and back. It’s her usual court attire; she has had to come here every few weeks while she awaits trial, and she always looks professional—nothing like the picture of her that appeared in the press after her arraignment. Her attorney, Joshua Horowitz, heads up to the judge’s bench to confer with the judge and prosecutors. For fifteen minutes, Bell stands alone at the defense table, staring straight ahead while everyone else in the room watches her.

Eventually the official court appearance begins, the one where she can hear what’s going on. As usual, the lawyers spar about what evidence will be shared before the trial, all the while arguing the strength of their case. The gist of the D.A.’s case against Bell and Adams—as described by Jacqueline Kagan, the lead prosecutor, during an earlier court date—is that “by failing to perceive that this child was at specific risk to be injured and to be killed, and not acting as they’re required to act, they committed criminally negligent homicide.”

Prosecutors contend that Bell caused Marchella’s death by not launching a full investigation after the call from the hospital and by not making sure Adams was conducting all the required home visits. In other words, prosecutors allege, if she had done a better job of supervising Adams, and if he had paid closer attention to the family, then he would have picked up on the fact that Marchella was being beaten and deprived of food—and he would’ve taken action to prevent her death. “We know that didn’t occur, because this child was wasting away, having died at eighteen pounds,” Kagan said at Bell’s arraignment, “but for her failure, acting in concert with Mr. Adams, this child would have been removed, because the obvious injuries to this child would have mandated removal or at least medical intervention.”

The case against Adams also includes an allegation of falsifying records. After Marchella’s death, ACS officials told him to go into the computer system and input his past visits to the family. Prosecutors allege that one of the entries he made—about visiting the home on August 12—is false. They argue that if he were at the home three weeks before Marchella’s death, and if he’d looked closely at her, he would’ve noticed her bruises and weight loss. In his defense, Adams’s attorney points to a document showing that Marchella visited an ear-nose-and-throat clinic on July 12 and the workers there noticed nothing amiss.

During a court date in May, Bell started sobbing as soon as she walked out of the courtroom. On this Wednesday, she holds up a little better. It helps that dozens of supporters—union officials and ACS workers—have shown up. If the D.A. had arrested another pair of ACS workers, there might not be nearly as much support. But inside 185 Marcy, everyone knows everyone else’s reputation—which workers do a good job, and which ones are lazy, incompetent, or burned out.

What the workers don’t yet know is that their boss—ACS commissioner John Mattingly—will step down in early September, the bad press from Marchella’s murder trailing him out the door. Meanwhile, Bell’s life remains in limbo. It’s hard to make plans for the future when you don’t know if you’re going to prison. No trial date has been set, and her case could crawl along for another year. This past spring, she graduated with a master’s degree in psychology from Long Island University. Now she’s swimming in student loans, worrying about whether she’ll ever be able to get a job in this field. She still talks to friends at 185 Marcy, and not long ago, she heard that the Hospital Unit there finally got what she always needed: a Sup 1.

These days, the fears that keep Bell up at night concern her own children, her 12-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. It seems the ultimate irony: the possibility that this whole saga might end with her being removed from her home, taken away from her two kids. For Bell, it’s the most terrifying part of this whole ordeal. In the courtroom, in front of the prosecutors and the reporters, she tries to conceal her fears, but to a former co-worker she admitted the truth. “I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Do you know I could go to jail for four years? Do you know how old my son will be when I come home?”


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