The Knock at the Door

Chereece Bell in front of her home in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Photo: Wayne Lawrence

On a spring afternoon, Chereece Bell scrambles to finish the laundry before her 12-year-old son comes home from school. She wears a tank top and sweatpants, rollers in her hair, no shoes or socks or bra. A package of chicken sits on the counter, waiting to be cooked. There had seemed to be no point in getting dressed up today; nobody was stopping by. Or at least that’s what she thought until 3:30 p.m., when somebody taps on the door. Through the peephole, she glimpses a woman holding up a badge. A cop? What is she doing here? She must have the wrong apartment.

“What do you want?” Bell asks through the door.

“I’m a detective,” the woman says. “I’m from the D.A.’s office.”

“For what?”

“Open the door.”

In the hallway, Bell discovers not just one officer but four: two women and two big guys. They urge her to let them in: “Your neighbor’s door is open. We don’t want to put your business out in the street.”

What business? Bell, 34, grew up in this apartment in Flatbush and now shares it with her longtime boyfriend Shawn, their two kids, a cat named Milk, and a dog named Louie. Until a few months ago, she’d worked as a supervisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. Her only knowledge about the criminal justice system came from the times she’d worked alongside the police, helping lock up parents who abused their kids.

“We have a warrant for Chereece Bell’s arrest.”

Bell glances at the folder in the officer’s hand and sees her date of birth written in black marker. She demands to see the warrant, and the officer shows her a document that looks legitimate. Maybe, she starts to think, all of this has something to do with Marchella Pierce. Marchella was the 4-year-old girl whose mother allegedly killed her in the fall of 2010. The death sparked a minor media frenzy when it was discovered the girl had been horribly malnourished, weighing just eighteen pounds when she died.

At the time, Bell supervised the unit at ACS that was supposed to be monitoring Marchella’s family. After Marchella’s death, an investigation found that the caseworker she had assigned to the case appeared to have paid little attention to it. Both Bell and the caseworker were forced to resign. That was almost six months ago. But none of this explains why now, on the afternoon of March 22, 2011, there are four officers standing in her apartment. “Hurry up. Put on your shoes. Let’s go. If we leave right now, we can have you in front of a judge this evening, so you don’t have to sleep in jail.”

Bell struggles to pull on a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of Uggs, all the while fighting back tears. Scary thoughts flash through her mind: I can’t let my son come home and see this scene. And: I can’t go to jail with glasses on and look like a nerd and get beat up. She manages to put in one contact lens—but not the other—before the officers hustle her out the door.

She spends the rest of the afternoon and the night on a metal bench in a chilly, windowless room at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, her left wrist cuffed to the wall. As far as she can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any big hurry to get her in front of a judge. That night, she barely sleeps. Two officers enter in the morning, put her in shackles—cuffs around her wrists, metal chain around her waist—and take her to State Supreme Court. As they approach the front door, she prays she doesn’t see anyone she knows. She’s walked across this same entryway many times, en route to testify against abusive parents. Family Court is right next door.

The officers whisk her up to the fifteenth floor, and when the elevator doors open, she does indeed spot a familiar face: Damon Adams, 36, her former underling at ACS who had been the caseworker for Marchella’s family. He’s in handcuffs too. And just when it seems the morning can’t get any worse, it does. Nearby, Bell spies a scrum of media: TV cameramen aiming their lenses at her, photographers flashing away. As the officers lead her down the hall, she hunches her shoulders and trains her eyes on the floor.

At a press conference earlier that day, Brooklyn district attorney Charles J. Hynes had announced he was charging both Bell and Adams with criminally negligent homicide, among other crimes. “Baby Marchella might be alive today had these ACS workers attended to her case with the basic levels of care it deserved,” he said.

The victim, Marchella Pierce, died after allegedly being beaten and starved.

The decision to arrest two ACS workers all but guarantees headlines for the D.A.’s office. As far as anyone knows, this marks the first time in New York City history that child-welfare workers have been indicted in connection with the death of a child on their caseload. Bell and Adams appear all over the media: local TV news, the tabloids, the front page of the New York Times. In all the photos, they look sullen and sleep-deprived—every bit the stereotypical tabloid criminals.

By the afternoon of March 23, Chereece Bell—mom of two, graduate of Brooklyn College, onetime city supervisor—has tumbled to the bottom of the city’s social ladder, joining that sorry parade of accused criminals being led out of the courthouse and onto buses bound for Rikers Island. Never mind that she doesn’t know exactly why she is being taken to jail. Nor does she understand how she could be charged with the murder of a girl she never met. But those questions will have to wait. First, she has a more urgent problem: figuring out how to make her $25,000 bail, so she can get back home to her children.

Each year, the state’s child-abuse hot­line receives almost 60,000 reports of children being abused or neglected in New York City. A worker takes down the information, then sends it to ACS, which funnels each case to a field office in one of the five boroughs. The cases involving kids in “Zone B”—which includes all or parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint—get routed to the office at 185 Marcy Avenue, a rundown brick building that sits across from a housing project in Williamsburg. In agency shorthand, this field office is known as “185 Marcy.”

Ask the caseworkers who toil in this building, and they will say the zone they cover is the toughest in all of Brooklyn. Poverty, crack addiction, domestic violence, untreated mental illness—there seems to be an especially high concentration of every social ill. And there are many, many families with an ACS history spanning the generations: It’s not unusual to go out and interview a mother suspected of abuse, only to discover that she was removed from her own home as a child.

Until the fall of 2010, Bell worked on the fifth floor here, overseeing four caseworkers. In the view of many of her colleagues, she had the most difficult job in the building: supervisor of the Hospital/Sex Abuse Unit. (The unit handles both sex-abuse cases and cases of children who’ve been admitted to a hospital.) While workers in other units were following up on suspicious scratches and bruises, her workers were investigating cases of kids with third-degree burns, subdural hematomas, broken limbs, fractured skulls. As one worker puts it, “It’s like being on the SWAT team.”

Bell had joined the agency on June 5, 2000, not long after graduating from college. She started as a caseworker—the official title is “child protective specialist”—and was assigned to the unit that then investigated the most-severe cases. “I had no idea how serious it would be,” she recalls. It didn’t take too many nights of trudging through Bed-Stuy in the dark, rapping on doors, to find out. And then, on January 11, 2006, a 7-year-old girl on a co-worker’s caseload was found dead in a Bed-Stuy apartment, killed by her stepfather. The victim’s name was Nixzmary Brown.

As it turned out, ACS had received two prior reports of possible abuse—yet hadn’t taken sufficient action to prevent her death. Eight months earlier, a guidance counselor had reported that Nixzmary had missed 46 days of school and, when she did show up, had a burn on her hand. Seven months after that, her school called again: Nixzmary had come in with a black eye and a two-inch cut above it. When the caseworker went to her house to investigate, the stepfather wouldn’t let her in—and she never got a court order to gain entry. A month later, Nixzmary was dead. It was a textbook case of what could go wrong if you didn’t aggressively tackle every suspected abuse case. A caseworker and two supervisors lost their jobs.

In 2009, when Bell was offered the job overseeing the Hospital/Sex Abuse Unit, everyone told her the same thing: Don’t do it. Those who had been around when Nixzmary Brown was killed were especially emphatic. Back then, Bell had been a caseworker in the same unit that was supposed to be monitoring Nixzmary’s family; she knew as well as anyone what had happened. But the intensity of working in a high-risk unit appealed to her. The more serious the allegations of abuse, the more she felt like she was accomplishing something. And, at age 33, she was flattered that the bosses had offered her this position, even if nobody else in the building wanted it.

Marchella Pierce's mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, on the day of her arrest.Photo: Joe Marino/NY Daily News via Getty Images

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.

Damon Adams at his arraignment on March 23.Photo: Jesse A. Ward/NY Daily News via Getty Images

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.”

Bell at her arraignment on March 23. Photo: Jesse A. Ward/NY Daily News via Getty Images

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.”

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.

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?”

The Knock at the Door