A Tragic Ritual

I feel like every few years we see a case like this in New York:


She died in September by the ugliest means, weighing an unthinkable 18 pounds, half what a 4-year-old ought to. She withered in poverty in a home in Brooklyn where the authorities said she had been drugged and often bound to a toddler bed by her mother, having realized a bare thimble's worth of living. 

The horrid nature of Marchella Pierce's death produced four arrests. This week, Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, is convening a grand jury to explore what he called "evidence of alleged systemic failures" in New York City's child welfare agency, which had monitored the girl's family. 

An examination of Marchella's bleak, fleeting life, drawn from interviews with relatives, neighbors and law enforcement authorities, as well as from legal documents, shows that almost nothing went right for her. She entered the world prematurely with underdeveloped lungs. When she was not in a hospital, she was being raised in the uproar of a helter-skelter, combative family struggling with drugs. And when she came under the watch of the city's Administration for Children's Services, an agency remade a number of times after child deaths, her well-being fell to caseworkers who, prosecutors say, essentially ignored the family.

What we don't see is workers from Children's Services being charged, which is the case this time. Yet this sounds depressingly familiar:

By July 1, Mr. Adams was the only caseworker for Marchella's family. Colleagues said that he was diligent and that caseworkers juggled impossible workloads. They said they were forced to assign their own priorities and decide which households to visit and which to skip. "You ask yourself, if I don't do a visit, will this child die?" said Kelly Mares, a city caseworker supportive of Mr. Adams and his supervisor, Ms. Bell. "That's horrible. But that's what we have to do. The truth is any child can die if you don't make a visit." 

The arrests have made things worse, she said. "I don't know how to do this job," she said. "We're terrified."

Obviously we have no idea how much of this was systemic, and how much of it was individual negligence. But the regularity of these sorts of cases, and the repeated efforts to remake Children's Services in this city (and I'm thinking nationally) really point to something broader at work, if not in this specific case, in the larger pattern.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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