“Both ACS and the DA are doing everything possible to protect children’s lives … [W]e are very concerned that today’s indictments of social work staff may discourage excellent, idealistic individuals from taking jobs helping our society’s neediest and most vulnerable children.” This was a statement that ACS (New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services) released on 3/24/11 in response to yet another publicity nightmare for the agency. This statement was released in response to charges filed against two former ACS workers, Damon Adams and Chereece Bell, for criminally negligent homicide in the death of four-year-old Marchella Pierce in September 2010. Marchella died as a result of severe child abuse, and weighed only 18 pounds at the time of her death. Damon Adams was the ACS caseworker assigned to her case, and Chereece Bell was his supervisor. According to the charges, Adams did not make the required number of home visits (or by some accounts, any home visits) and his supervisor helped falsify records after Marchella died. I can’t imagine that you could see a four-year-old who weighs only 18 pounds and not immediately know that the child should be removed from the home, but I am not familiar enough with the facts of the case to make a determination as to the culpability of Adams and Bell. Contrary to what ACS would like you to think, it is not this recent “bad publicity” that would discourage “excellent, idealistic individuals” from taking jobs with ACS. It is the fact that ACS runs contrary to social work practices that are actually helpful, and will kill the souls and spirits of social workers who try to enter the field through ACS.
The NYC Administration for Children’s Services is first and foremost a bureaucracy, and while the desire to protect children may be at the heart of it, if even one child is harmed as the result of this system’s failure, that is too many. The amount of paperwork and hoops that one needs to jump through to satisfy ACS’s “quality improvement” requirements are ludicrous and creates a mentality in which caseworkers begin to see themselves more as stressed-out, mindless cogs in a child services machine. It leads to feelings of devaluation and rapid burnout, neither of which are conducive to keeping the best employees long-term.
You’ll hear a lot that ACS workers are “overworked and underpaid” and people will continuously point to the low salaries as a major part of the problem. I disagree, though, because no one gets into social services because they are hoping to make a lot of money. The real problem lies in the “overworked” part of the equation. Some agencies have caps on how many cases a worker can have, but many don’t, and even if there are caps they are at the very limit of what is feasible for a single human being to accomplish. But the problem does not lie with the home visits or the office visits, although those are time consuming, to be sure. The biggest factor in case workers feeling overworked is in the excess amounts of redundant paperwork, which is largely monitored by supervisors who are themselves burdened by supervisees and may not be the best qualified for their positions. The same notes often have to be entered into multiple programs. Ostensibly this is to reduce “oversight,” but obviously it has its limitations, the number one being that it’s easy to falsify records, as seen in the case of Marchella Pierce. Also some of this excess work comes at the price of workers avoiding, either deliberately or inadvertently, details that might lead to more work. In this case, that had tragic consequences.
ACS has said that they are attempting to improve their delivery of services and their aid to families, especially since the death of Nixzmary Brown in 2006, but anyone who works in social services in New York City will tell you that all they have managed to do is increase the workload for workers, while decreasing the quality of service that those workers are able to provide. There are over 164,300 children in New York City receiving services either directly from ACS, or from agencies that contract with ACS. That is too many lives at risk at the hands of an extremely flawed system. With apologies to the capable and competent social workers who do work for ACS, in general the most “excellent and idealistic” social workers avoid working for ACS because they know that it’s not where they will be able to do their best work. ACS is going to continue to have problems like this until they stop blaming the media for negative portrayals of the system, and start looking at their broken organization to see how it’s failing families and social work as a whole.
Image Source: Screenshot of Mariah Carey in Precious, from PopCrunch.