Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Routine Practice or Murder?

Yesterday, this news article was posted on no less than 4 of my friends' facebook pages. The article is talking about the potential fallout for the child welfare system after a caseworker and his supervisor were indicted for negligent homicide. The charge was filed after Marchella Pierce, a child on their caseload, died from abuse after being returned home to her mother.

In Brooklyn, an investigator and supervisor for the New York City Administration for Children's Services are arguing they were too busy to record their work. If and when they go to trial, a central issue will be whether city workers who fall down on the job should be held criminally responsible — and the outcome could set a precedent for how failures are handled in the future.

Critics liken the practice to arresting a police officer for not getting to the scene of a crime fast enough.

When I first heard the story of Marchella Pierce, from Fosterhood's blog, my initial reaction along the same lines. I have never had a child on my caseload die, but I know workers who have gone through the horrific experience. I have seen the repercussions first hand - casefiles seized, investigations into every professional involved, death reviews, testifying in court, retelling the story a hundred times, etc.

It is a social worker's worst nightmare and even without criminal charges, it takes years for resolution.


I dislike the notion that social workers can prevent child abuse and neglect. Too often we hear that if we "do your job", nothing bad would ever happen to the children for whom we are responsible. Caseworkers do not move in with families, we are not able to know what happens all the time. We do our best to see risk factors and safety concerns, but we can not predict the future.

The reality is that even when we all do our jobs at 100% - sometimes children still get hurt.

But after reading the details of Marchella Pierce’s death, and the basis for the charges against the workers on her case, I began to re-evaluate my stance.

At the crux of the charges against investigator Damon Adams and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, are whether visits were made to the troubled home. Records and conversations between Bell and Adams were not entered into the computer system until after she died, and prosecutors charge that they were falsified.

Workers at child welfare agencies around the country tell similar stories of taxing, emotional and frustrating jobs that are low in pay and high in stress because of hostile families, tight budgets and overburdened court systems. Workers juggle several cases, make as little as $28,000 a year and usually burn out after a couple of years.

I was still feeling pretty sympathetic towards the workers on the case at this point. Case notes are generally known to be the proverbial thorn in a social worker’s side. We know they are important, but they are often near the bottom of a very long list of vital tasks that come with the job. At the end of the day after dealing with countless referrals, phone calls and more than occasional crisis…sitting down to write it all out in the appropriate format can seem like one request too many.

So we say we will get to it “tomorrow”…

But there is a difference between not completing a casenote in a timely manner and getting so far behind that you can not account for the work you are doing.

If the worker was truly doing his job, he should have been to the home twice in each month leading up to little Marchella’s death. (Children with special medical needs require the worker to visit the home bi-weekly.) And I find it difficult to believe that a child with such serious medical issues shouldn't have had a doctor's appointment within that timeframe - which the caseworker should have documentation regarding as well. According to numerous articles that I have read, Marchella didn’t die from one instance of abuse.
Marchella died of child abuse syndrome and acute drug poisoning, prosecutors said, and had suffered multiple blunt impact injuries, malnutrition and dehydration for months before her September death. They said the 4-year-old was repeatedly drugged with a generic form of Benadryl to force her to sleep.
Even if Adams had simply fallen behind on his case notes, surely he would have discussed any concerns with his supervisor. And as a supervisor, I may not be able to guarantee that my workers are doing their jobs – but Adam’s supervisor should have been asking enough questions to have a pretty good idea. At the very least, working with him to get his documentation up to date should have been a priority. As any good social worker will tell you, “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen”.


I don't know whether or not Damon Adams and Chareece Bell were doing their jobs. Right now it looks like that will be decided by a jury. Which is the issue being debated by many people and highlighted in this particular article. Should caseworkers and supervisors should even be able to be charged with such a crime?
New York's child welfare commissioner, John Mattingly, recently announced system changes after Marchella's death and said in a statement that the arrests were troubling and could discourage excellent job applicants.

Child welfare experts say Mattingly's fear is a real possibility, given how difficult the jobs are.

Here is what I have to say about that possibility:


Don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t want to scare people away from child welfare. But I don't want to minimize what this job really entails.
Child welfare workers are routinely overworked and undertrained.

Child welfare workers have most of the responsibility and relatively little authority.

Child welfare workers make life and death decisions every day.

This is just the reality of the system - its messed up. But that doesn't give those of us on the front lines the right to slack off. The law already protects us from being sued in civil courts by dissatisfied clients who might feel we didn't do our jobs well enough. But if our actions or inaction causes harm to come to one of our clients, I do believe we should be held criminally responsible.

Negligent Homicide: a criminal charge brought against people who, through criminal negligence, allow another to die.

Criminal Negligence: careless, inattentive, neglectful, willfully blind.

If I do not do my job – skip homevisits, don’t talk to children privately away from their caregivers, let referrals sit idle on my desk or am dishonest about my actions to my supervisor…

I am being negligent.

If a child dies because I neglected to do the things that could possibly have prevented abuse or neglect…

I will have allowed that death.

If I do all those tasks outlined in my job discription, and a child still dies - that is a tragedy that I recognize as being a possible risk within the context of my chosen career. I do not think that “high caseloads” or “lack of training” should be an excuse to let social workers off the hook for doing the bare minimum of their job. Protecting children is why we all get into this job. Protecting their physical safety must be the top priority.

I hope that every person who puts in an application...

goes on an interview...

and accepts a job in child welfare...

considers consequences of not doing the job well.

Our children are worth it.


  1. yes they (our children) are worth it and knowing that there are people out there like you who are comitted to making the system work gives me hope.

  2. It is not something I could do. I became a social worker to help people. I am not saying that you are not helping (think of all those children that are now safe because of your intervention). But I like my helping to be seen as helping by EVERYONE, including the people I am helping. Too often in Child Protection Services the parents (and their hangers on) feel that you are the enemy. Sometimes the children feel that you are the enemy (or at least a representative of the enemy). Which made it very difficult for me to go to work every day (I was at a "fee-for-service" agency, driving kids to appointments, supervising visits, etc.) And so I added this job (at a Children's Hospital) and eventually left that job (just weeks before major cuts.)

    But in my opinion, that makes you and your co-workers the real heros! Because you can face it and do face it, determined to do your best in what is a horrible situation at the best of times.

  3. That's so sad :-( It's one thing for a child to do after everything that could have been done, was done. But from what has been said about this case... I agree with you.It's not a job for every Tom,Dick and Harriet.

  4. I pray for all the kids who don't have a worker as responsible and dedicated as you.

  5. I've moved between case management roles and information management roles and there seems to be a huge deficit in case mgt info mgt. There is awesome technology out there including encryption software. In this the 21st century, documententing good work should not be an issue.

  6. My only question is are these individuals licensed social workers?

  7. In my state county child welfare workers are often not trained, licensed social workers. If child protection workers are not licensed social workers they have not received the educational or supervised field training needed in this field.

  8. In my experience, most child welfare caseworkers are entry level positions. They usually require a bachelors degree in a social service related field. Some agencies will express a preference for a master's degree. I'd guess very few caseworkers are required to have a social work license. In my state, there is a training that must be completed to be considered a "licensed child welfare worker".


Join in the conversation! Please leave a comment!