Death Be Not Proud

Rickiana Campbell’s mother sits in jail, accused of beating her daughter to death with a doll because she would not stop crying. This happened in Brooklyn, in September. Rickiana was 2 years old, and if her name and story are not nearly as familiar as those of, say, Elisa Izquierdo, whose mother murdered her four years ago, it should not be surprising. The Times, the Post, and Newsday all gave Rickiana’s story a day. The Daily News followed with a few brief pieces. And that was the end of it.

This seemed odd. Here was a story so much like Elisa’s: the horrific murder of a child by her parent, reports that the city’s Administration for Children’s Services had taken the child and her siblings from their mother only to return them, and a caseworker who somehow did not notice the telltale hints of Rickiana’s palpably savage abuse (among other things, neighbors reported that on summer days she wore concealing long sleeves).

Yet the death of Rickiana Campbell attracted little attention because the stories of children murdered by their parents, or friends of their parents, or foster parents, seldom do. Consider Lillian Mezon, Lisa Nugent, Queen Baker, Darnell Fauntleroy, and Gabriella Vasquez: All of them were killed the same year Elisa died. All, like Rickiana, evoked momentary sadness but little if any outrage. Given the many hundreds of stories, columns, and editorials that followed Elisa’s death, one would have expected a more indignant response when children continued to die. That there was almost none says much about the way the press approaches the stories of the city’s 37,000 neglected, abused, and abandoned children whom the state has felt compelled to take from their parents (to say nothing of the half-million children in similar circumstances across the country).

Child welfare is a tough story to sell. It is ugly and cluttered, and offers little in the way of tidy remedies for lives ruined not only by parents but often by the very agency mandated to help those children. There are the occasional thoughtful child-welfare pieces in the Times and the News. But the stories of these children are too often buried in the paper, if they appear at all. Until, that is, a child’s murder somehow captures the imagination of the press, whose stories, in turn, provoke public and political anger.

So why did the story of Rickiana Campbell’s short life and horrible death vanish? Call it “Elisa fatigue.” The story was old. It sounded too much like a story that had already been told, one that had, in most people’s minds, changed things. The enduring child-welfare story is that of Elisa Izquierdo, the martyred child in whose name other children might be saved.

In truth, there was reason for reporters and editors to look back at their coverage of Elisa’s death with some satisfaction. It had pushed the mayor – who in the preceding months had gutted the city’s budget for child welfare – to begin displaying a great if sudden interest in the fate of children failed by their parents. It led to his appointing the well- regarded Nicholas Scoppetta to head the city’s child-welfare agency. It prompted the Legislature to lift the veil of confidentiality that the agency had for years used to rebuff any questions or scrutiny of its workings. Family Court, whose proceedings were historically closed, opened its doors. Scoppetta announced plans for reform, the centerpiece of which was the placement of children in foster care in their own neighborhoods and opening offices in those neighborhoods where the needs were greatest.

“By the time of Rickiana’s death, child welfare was no longer a hot story, no longer part of the public conversation… . We seem willing to accept a great deal about the agency that is supposed to make life better.”

But another child died, and then another. And while the predictable voices of the children’s advocates fairly screamed that the system remained an abomination, the words did not resonate. Besides, there was still Elisa’s story, now the benchmark for both outrage and action. So powerful was that story that on September 1, two weeks before Rickiana Campbell’s murder, Dateline NBC aired a follow-up on her legacy.

Meanwhile, the few reporters who made their way to the newly opened Family Court discovered stories of an altogether different sort, heartbreaking and impossibly complex ones of spoiled lives and hapless parents and children who ran the very great risk of growing up to be just like the parents who had so miserably failed them. The work was not done, not by a long shot, but the story was a loser, offering no neat resolution – no end, in fact, at all. The story lost its appeal, so much so that when an event, a genuine peg, came along – a Rickiana – it was ignored.

Consider the declining number of stories about four murdered children over the past four years: The Nexis database of news reports finds Elisa Izquierdo’s name in 1,104 stories, 339 of which ran in the five weeks after her death. Nadine Lockwood, who was found starved to death by her mother a year later, appeared in 210 stories. In 1997, two years after Elisa’s death, Sabrina Green, who was brutalized and murdered by her adult sister and her sister’s boyfriend, appeared 70 times. Rickiana Campbell’s name appears in seven stories. By the time of her death, child welfare was no longer a hot story, no longer part of the public conversation. Interest had waned; outrage, dissipated.

As a result, we know very little but seem willing to accept a good deal about the agency that is supposed to be making life better for children. ACS has not been shy about trumpeting its accomplishments: Scoppetta hired an additional 1,950 caseworkers and provided them with far more training, speeding up assessments of children and families so that caseworkers, lawyers, and judges are not left trying to understand who actually plays a part in a child’s life.

All this is commendable, yet these were the obvious reforms and were, politically speaking, not tough to sell in the wake of the Izquierdo murder. The agency now functions. But far more difficult will be the task of changing the culture of a bureaucracy that has for decades trudged along without any true understanding of its mission (are we supposed to be protecting children or keeping families together, and are those goals contradictory?) or the emotional and developmental needs of its clients.

Scoppetta has proceeded slowly, for instance, with decentralization, which he has characterized as key to his reform plan and which does reflect the most progressive thinking on child welfare: that an agency can be of greatest use when it operates in the neighborhoods where most of its clients live. If a child must be placed in foster care, the thinking goes, far better to keep her in her own neighborhood, close to school, friends, relatives, and, yes, parents, so long as they are not a physical threat to her.

But awarding the first batch of contracts to 35 private foster-care agencies (the city typically subcontracts such work) in the Bronx alone took almost three years; bids have finally gone out in other boroughs. So profound a change in the agency’s approach to its work will not go down easy with entrenched caseworkers.

Despite his generally good grades and favorable press, Scoppetta will undoubtedly face staff members not at all eager to move, say, to an office in East New York, and critics who will charge that his agency is only embracing clutter and chaos rather than acting decisively on behalf of children. He will be accused of being soft on parents, of being too tolerant of the failures. ACS was sued in January, for instance, by parents who accuse it of too quickly removing children from questionable homes – a charge echoed by the watchdog group Child Welfare Watch. Ironically, one persistent critic, Marcia Robinson Lowry of Children’s Rights, Inc., accused the agency in July of failing to protect abused and neglected children.

These days, the press goes little beyond reporting the accusations. A well-intentioned appointee like Scoppetta might be gone in two years, but the agency, like the social ill it cannot seem to cure, will endure, confident in the belief that no one is really watching. Too often reporters ignore, or fail to pursue, any story other than the sensational murder (and seem to have given up even under those circumstances). The consequence of Elisa fatigue is that the agency vested with protecting children has come to believe – correctly – that the press stopped paying much attention. After all, wasn’t this fixed?”By the time of Rickiana’s death, child welfare was no longer a hot story, no longer part of the public conversation… . We seem willing to accept a great deal about the agency that is supposed to make life better.”

Death Be Not Proud