ELISA IZQUIERDO and Marisol A. shared the same short biography
of physical abuse until Marisol was rescued and Elisa died. Now
these young girls' separate cases, each in its own way, are
triggering reform of New York's system for protecting abused and
Elisa's death last November, allegedly at the hands of an
abusive mother, sparked hearings, investigations, and pledges to
reform the city-run child-welfare agency. The agency, which
oversees foster care and investigates cases of child abuse, has
been drubbed with accusations that it failed to respond to reports
that the six-year-old girl was being beaten and abused.
But child advocates here say it's time for a more radical
solution: They are suing to wrest control of one of the nation's
largest child-welfare agencies and place it in federal hands.
If the Marisol v. Giuliani lawsuit succeeds, New York's
Administration for Children's Services would become the second
system in the nation to be placed in federal receivership. The move
represents a growing trend, as advocacy groups increasingly turn to
the courts to force reform of child-welfare agencies across the
"These are such neglected systems," says Marcia Robinson Lowry,
executive director of Children's Rights, the national advocacy
group behind Marisol v. Giuliani and 11 other suits against
child-welfare agencies nationwide. "The only time anyone ever pays
attention to them is when a child dies and then it's very, very
brief. No one ever stops to look at the serious underlying
The flaws that beset these systems - a lack of accountability,
swollen caseloads, untrained or unqualified caseworkers, poor
supervision, meager resources, and simple mismanagement - are
mirrored in agencies from Alabama to Connecticut, advocates say.
Children's Rights and its cocounsel, Lawyers for Children, took
the far-reaching step of asking the court to place New York's
agency into receivership because "we felt it was too late for an
ordinary class-action suit," Ms. Lowry says. "The problems are so
well documented, and they've been admitted for such a long time."
The District of Columbia's child-welfare agency was placed in
receivership last summer after a two-week trial and years of
complaints by advocacy groups over its poor performance. Meanwhile,
child-welfare agencies elsewhere in the country, such as Kansas
City, are under court order to reform their systems. Philadelphia's
system and several others are currently involved in lawsuits.
"Lawsuits have certainly increased in the last five to 10
years," says Judy Meltzer of the Center for Social Policy in
Washington. "More systems have fallen into crisis across the
country, with increased caseloads and new budgetary pressures." The
center is the court-appointed monitor for the District of Columbia
and has worked with systems in Alabama, Missouri, Connecticut,
Arkansas, Milwaukee, and Kansas City.
"The biggest challenge is coming up with remedies that are
realistic, but it has to start with leadership and a culture change
in the bureaucracy," Ms. Meltzer says. "The other changes - lower
caseloads, staff training - follow."
"When I arrived, no one really knew how many people the agency
served," attests Jerome Miller, who began his job in September as
the court-appointed receiver of D. …