A former New York City child welfare worker and his supervisor were indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide, the Brooklyn district attorney announced on Wednesday, saying that their failures had contributed to the death of a 4-year-old, Marchella Pierce, who had been repeatedly beaten and tied to a bed and weighed 18 pounds at the end of her life in September.
The girl’s grandmother, who witnessed her being tied to the bed many times, according to the district attorney, was also indicted, on manslaughter and other charges. The girl’s mother already faces a murder charge.
It was believed to be the first time in the city’s history that child welfare workers had been charged with homicide in a child’s death, and the district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, made it clear that he did not believe they were the only ones to blame.
Mr. Hynes said he was convening a special grand jury to investigate “evidence of alleged systemic failures” at the child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services. The grand jury will seek to determine whether the agency had followed through on its plan for reforms after the 2006 death of Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old Brooklyn girl, one of a long series of abuse and neglect deaths that have pockmarked the city’s halting efforts to protect its large numbers of vulnerable children.
Damon Adams, the caseworker on Marchella’s case, and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, were indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide, official misconduct and endangering the welfare of a child. Mr. Adams was also charged with tampering with public records and falsifying records.
Prosecutors said agency workers indicated “significant concerns” a year ago after Marchella’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, who had a history of drug abuse, left her alone in an emergency room and acted inappropriately.
Between then and the child’s death half a year later, Mr. Adams made two entries in agency computers, recording a phone call in March and an attempted home visit in June. After her death, he made five entries, saying that he had had contact with the family in March, April, June and August, and that in August he had observed her head, neck and torso and had seen no changes from previous visits.
Jacqueline Kagan, a prosecutor, said at Mr. Adams’s arraignment on Wednesday that signs of malnourishment would have been obvious by then, and that the entries had been falsified. Even if he had made the visits, she said, they would have been insufficient, because biweekly visits were required.
After Marchella’s death, Ms. Bell made several entries saying she had met with Mr. Adams on the case, prosecutors said. Mr. Hynes said Ms. Bell had failed to properly oversee and monitor Mr. Adams’s work.
“Baby Marchella might be alive today,” Mr. Hynes said, “had these A.C.S. workers attended to her case with the basic levels of care it deserved, or had her grandmother stepped in and put a stop to the shocking abuse she is charged with facilitating.”
Mr. Adams, 36, and Ms. Bell, 34, who have resigned from the agency, pleaded not guilty. Both were jailed, with bail set at $35,000 for Mr. Adams and $25,000 for Ms. Bell.
Ms. Bell’s lawyer, Joshua E. Horowitz, blamed Mr. Adams, calling him a “substandard worker” whom Ms. Bell had wanted removed from her unit. Mr. Adams’s lawyer, Wayne C. Bodden, said his client had been directed to make the post-death computer entries by “his superiors beyond Ms. Bell.”
Both lawyers blamed the agency. “Why is she being thrown to the wolves?” Ms. Horowitz said. “Why does it stop at her?”
John B. Mattingly, the commissioner of the agency, has acknowledged that it did not do its job to protect Marchella. But he warned that charging agency employees with homicide could have a chilling effect on recruiting people to the profession, a task already hampered by low pay and a high rate of burnout.
“They are going into people’s homes all hours of the night and trying to do it in ways that keep them safe as well,” Mr. Mattingly said. “If people who are interested in those kinds of jobs see this action taken by the district attorney, we have a concern, with social workers all around the country, that this will hurt our ability to recruit and retain talented people.”
According to prosecutors, Marchella’s mother tied her to her bed, beat her with a belt and a videocassette tape, deprived her of food and water, and force-fed her medication. Marchella died on Sept. 2 of child abuse syndrome, along with acute drug poisoning, blunt impact injuries, malnutrition and dehydration, prosecutors said.
Her life had never been easy. She was born more than three months prematurely, with underdeveloped lungs, and had spent most of her four years in hospitals. She returned home in February 2010, with a tracheal tube to help her breathing. The city became involved in her home life the previous month, when Ms. Brett-Pierce gave birth to a son and was found to have drugs in her system.
The agency assigned the case to Child Development Support, an independent agency in Brooklyn, to work with the family and help the mother with her drug problems. In a report on the case in October, the agency acknowledged that it had failed to properly assess the girl’s condition and plan for her care with Child Development Support. That failure was compounded by inadequate home visits and assessments by both it and the independent agency, the report said. Child Development Support’s role in the case ended in June, returning full responsibility to Children’s Services.
The case was handled by the field office in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the same one that did not prevent Nixzmary Brown’s fatal beating by her stepfather despite several complaints to the agency about her treatment.
The district attorney said Marchella’s grandmother, Loretta Brett, 56, witnessed the girl being bound to her bed on most days from last March to her death. For part of that time, prosecutors said, the bed was in the grandmother’s room.
Ms. Kagan, the prosecutor, said that Ms. Brett had acted as a second parent to Marchella — her father was not involved in the family — and that she had acknowledged to the police that Marchella had been bound regularly since May, “basically day and night,” by her hands and feet. Ms. Brett has tried to get custody of her daughter’s other two children — the infant and a 5-year-old boy — though she has tested positive for marijuana use, Ms. Kagan said. Those boys have been removed from the home.
Ms. Brett’s lawyer, Julie A. Clark, said Ms. Brett had helped investigators after Marchella’s death and denied that she had known about the beatings and restraints. Bail for Ms. Brett was set at $300,000.
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