Byline: Colleen Long Associated Press
NEW YORK -- When child welfare worker Kelly Mares investigates an abuse case, she doesn't know what's going to greet her on the other side of the door. A ferocious dog. Or a gun. Or a meth lab, or angry parents who lash out violently.
She takes those risks willingly, she says, because she believes in protecting the city's most vulnerable. But she's not willing to risk going to jail. After two of her co-workers were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of a 4-year-old girl under their care, she's rethinking her career.
"I do not want to go to work every day afraid that I'm going to be arrested for doing my job, and right now that's how everybody feels and it's really scary," she said, her voice cracking.
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.
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 in the case of Marchella Pierce, who died after being beaten, drugged and starved to 18 pounds, about half of what a child her age should weigh. 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.
Critics liken the practice to arresting a police officer for not getting to the scene of a crime fast enough.
"It's impossible to see into the future about these cases," child welfare expert Andrew White said, referring to Marchella's death.
"It's a lot to take the responsibility for something you're only seeing in hindsight. when you're talking about homicide charges," said White of The New School for Management and Urban Policy which publishes the journal Child Welfare Watch.
Prosecutors insist, though, that child welfare workers who are dangerously negligent in their jobs should be held criminally responsible.
Case workers in Philadelphia who skipped home visits to a 14-year-old disabled girl and contractors who invented phony paperwork after she starved to death in 2006 are serving long prison terms for defrauding the city; her mother is serving 20 to 40 years for third-degree murder.
Florida's system recently came under fire after a child protective investigator failed to call law enforcement during a four-day search for 10-year-old fraternal twins allegedly locked in a bathroom for days. Instead, officials say, she filled out a safety questionnaire indicating the children were not in danger. The girl's body was later found in her father's pickup truck.
In Brooklyn, Marchella Pierce's mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, has been charged with murder in her September death; her grandmother has been charged with manslaughter. They have pleaded not guilty.
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.
The Administration for Children's Services said in an internal report that it appeared no one visited the home in the months before the girl died.
Bell and Adams say some visits took place but weren't recorded because they were so busy. They resigned in October.
"I was so conditioned. ... Every day it was something else coming up that prevented you from doing another. It was so regular to me that it was impossible to get it all done," Bell said.