When 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown was killed in Brooklyn, N.Y., on the 11th of January, it was certainly a tragedy waiting to happen. It was also certain that some of the workers involved in the case would be suspended or fired. Less certain was a reorganization of the agency. This time all three occurred.
Perhaps it is because Nixzmary’s was the third death of a child with a case in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant child welfare office in recent weeks. This pattern of deaths and the particular brutality Nixzmary suffered produced a flurry of media attention.
New York Mayor Bloomberg announced Jan. 24 “a series of new initiatives,” allocating more funds for children’s protective services, creating or renaming several positions in his administration, “increasing supervision of child welfare workers,” and providing more training for staff and services for families in need of help. Another 325 child protective workers will be hired, in addition to 200 said to be in training already. The mayor had already reversed plans to gut the Administration of Children’s Service’s (ACS) budget by a total of $60 million over the current and next fiscal years.
ACS Press Secretary Sheila Stainback said that although there have been cuts in the overall ACS budget in the last four years, the child protective budget has increased. She also said that since there is no civil service list for child protective workers, the new workers will be hired provisionally. The ACS web page lists openings for lawyers, technical workers, administrators and managers, but none for child protection workers.
The Bedford-Stuyvesant child welfare office that had Nixzmary’s case has missed out on what many say were previous improvements in the agency. Workers within the agency and staff of Social Service Employees Union Local 371 of AFSCME, the union representing the workers, describe an office in a crisis of understaffing, big caseloads and high rates of new referrals, insufficient staff training, and low morale. While total referrals for child protective services fell, failure to replace workers has reduced child protection workers by about 10 percent in the last four years, and caseloads have risen. These long-standing problems have produced a high turnover of workers in the Brooklyn office, and slower responses to referrals.
The field director of the Brooklyn office had been promoted into management rather than fired from his entry-level child protective specialist job when it was discovered that he lacked the required college degree. A Local 371 staffer who has had little success defending workers hired without the degree said, “He must have a friend.” (Last month the agency finally fired the field director for falsifying records of another child who died.)
The Bedford-Stuyvesant office covers an area whose residents are victims of racism, poverty, poor health care and deteriorated housing, as well as the related social and economic conditions. All these problems cause higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, more domestic violence and other ills. Certainly only a small fraction of Bedford-Stuyvesant families are abusive, but even that number overwhelmed the understaffed, poorly managed office.
Part of the mayor’s initiative is to “redirect $9 million in existing preventive funding this fiscal year to preventive programs for communities most in need.” Bloomberg did not explain how much will go to Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is widely known to be a community “most in need,” or how other areas will make up for funds redirected away from them.
A question which comes up in these situations is why no one — no family friend, neighbor or relative — reported the abuse even though they knew of or suspected it. Part of the reason is that the arm of the government with which the community is most familiar is the police, who many residents feel act more like an occupying army than a force to “serve and protect.” Given that, another of the mayor’s initiatives — hiring “20 seasoned law enforcement professionals … who will enhance the investigatory practice in the ACS field offices” — is unlikely to stimulate more child protective reports from concerned citizens.
There are no mayoral initiatives to improve housing, health care or education in Bedford Stuyvesant, or to provide good jobs, or meet the other needs of the community. This is why many people consider the mayor’s fix-it plan to be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” The next death has already happened. Quachon Browne, a 4-year-old known to Child Welfare Services, died of head and liver injuries in a cold two-room apartment on the 30th of January.
Bill Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired member of Social Service Employees Union Local 371.