Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"A Death in Brooklyn"

These are the responses to my January 13 article, "Torture And Murder Of A 7-Year-Old Girl Living With Family Under ACS Supervision Leads To Demands For Full Investigation And Review Of ACS' Family-First Attitude." Thanks to all, please continue to provide us with your feedback.


  1. Re: 10. I read something in a tabloid (yes I do read them, albeit occasionally) that the grandmother wanted ot take the child to Puerot Rico but did not have the plane far of $84 for the child's ticket.

  2. very sobering but hopeful analysis of a tragic crime

  3. Your analysis reminds me of two cases.

    KITTY GENOVESE MURDER in 1964 when 38 witnesses did nothing despite hearing
    the screams preceding her murder.

    ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] exhibit at the
    Museum of the City of New York several years ago which recounted how Henry Bergh
    a NYC ship builder's son after a year honeymoon around the world secured
    a diplomatic post to the Russian Court of CZAR ALEXANDER II in Saint Petersburg
    because he was a supporter of LINCOLN. While riding the streets of Saint Petersburg
    he saw a driver beating a carriage horse with a whip. He stopped his own carriage
    grabbed the whip from the driver and reprimanded the man.

    The incident became the inspiration for the founding of the ASPCA in 1866 when he
    returned to NYC and could rally the support of his friends and the incident is pictorially represented in the LOGO of the ASPCA.

    Henry Bergh was also involved in the formation of the MASSACHUSETTS SOCIETY
    FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUETY TO CHILDREN in 1878 based on cruelty

    What struck me from the exhibit was how much longer it took to form a society to PREVENT CRUELTY TO CHILDREN COMPARED TO CRUELTY TO ANIMALS.

  4. Something ought to be done to stop this nonsense. You are absolutely right in what you wrote. Many thanks.

  5. Lady Rotary10:40 AM

    Thank you for your article addressing the latest child tragedy. Although I was disturbed with every apathetic person involved, the one that stands out in my mind is the man in the park whose niece played with the victim every day. He stated that the little girl confided in him exactly what was happening but begged him not to say anything as she feared more beatings as a result.
    I feel he is as guilty as everyone else. Once he had that information, he had the responsibility to do something about it. Do you agree?

  6. Unless there is someone in every home 24/7, knowledge will be imperfect, particularly about what goes on in the intimacy of a family wiht a right to privacy.

    Lacking knowledge, the child welfare authorities must err on one side of the other. Either they act on all suspicions, and risk needlessly breaking up families, or they forebear until they are certain, and risk blame for the death of children. Giuliani preferred the prior approach; Dinkins and (it seems) Bloomberg the latter. Was this a case of incompetence? Maybe. More likely, there are other cases like it, based on what was known at the time (not now), where breaking up the family would have been the wrong thing to do.

    People should be honest aboiut the tradeoff.

    There are many issues like this. Impose a death penalty and you risk murdering the innocent. Bush's domestic spying has violated the privacy of the innocent in an attempt to prevent harm by the guilty. Etc. The Bush case is similar in that it also has a racial profiling component.

    Remember all the cases of Giuliani taking away children for no good reason, and how ticked off people were? I can only hope that those who are outraged now are a completely different group of people, not hypocrites taking both sides. With so many issues that are clear-cut abuses by those with power and influence getting over on the rest of us (including just about everything done by the State of New York), I'm reluctant to criticize either approach where the issue is so difficult.

  7. Thx for your trenchant and sensible series of questions about foster care. The Commissioner may be a terrific guy, but he hasn't managed yet to change the culture of that bureaucracy (third worst among the DOT and the B of E -- oops almost forgot the MTA). The fact that these things have been going on for donkey's years indicates a cancer in the organization. Adding people, raising salaries and otherwise regarding the kind of behavior that leads to death of a child won't do a thing.

    My solution? Find who's responsible all the way down the line from the social worker to the doctor and bring them in on charges of negligent homicide -- even if it's thrown out the publicity will put everyone o n notice that the work they do is serious. Back this up with longer, better more intensive training for newbies and well as veterans and possibly there can be a systemic change.

    Of course, a food computerized data bank would help too as would better police cooperation -- with the ever-decreasing murder rate they haven't enough to do right now anyhow and maybe assigning new duties may get them to look more closely at the crime stats.

  8. If a child is beaten to death as the result of an
    > > individual's failure to perform his/her statutory
    > > duties, or because those duties were performed in a
    > > slow, sloppy, lazy or inattentive manner, what
    > > should be the consequences of such a conclusion on
    > > the employment of the inadequate employee.
    > I'll leave the social and political conclusions to
    > you, but I wanted to make you aware of some legal
    > background for this case. The case is DeShaney v.
    > Winnebago Cty. Soc. Servs. Dept., 489 U.S. 189 (1989),
    > available at
    > http://www.justia.us/us/489/189/case.html, where the
    > Court held that an agency's failure to provide an
    > abused child with adequate protection against his
    > father's violence did not violate his rights under the
    > substantive component of the Due Process Clause. The
    > case is a fascinating display of competing judicial
    > ideologies, particularly intriguing given the current
    > state of the Court.
    > Summarizing the Court's position, Justice Rehnquist
    > wrote:
    > "Judges and lawyers, like other humans, are moved by
    > natural sympathy in a case like this to find a way for
    > Joshua and his mother to receive adequate compensation
    > for the grievous harm inflicted upon them. But before
    > yielding to that impulse, it is well to remember once
    > again that the harm was inflicted not by the State of
    > Wisconsin, but by Joshua's father. The most that can
    > be said of the state functionaries in this case is
    > that they stood by and did nothing when suspicious
    > circumstances dictated a more active role for them. In
    > defense of them it must also be said that had they
    > moved too soon to take custody of the son away from
    > the father, they would likely have been met with
    > charges of improperly intruding into the parent-child
    > relationship, charges based on the same Due Process
    > Clause that forms the basis for the present charge of
    > failure to provide adequate protection.
    > The people of Wisconsin may well prefer a system of
    > liability which would place upon the State and its
    > officials the responsibility for failure to act in
    > situations such as the present one. They may create
    > such a system, if they do not have it already, by
    > changing the tort law of the State in accordance with
    > the regular lawmaking process. But they should not
    > have it thrust upon them by this Court's expansion of
    > the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."
    > In dissent, Justices Brennan, Blackmun and Marshall
    > took issue with Chief Justice Rehnquist's
    > characterization of "the most that can be said of the
    > state functionaries" in this case, and articulated a
    > more flexible, positivist view of the Constitution.
    > While Justice Brennan did the heavy-lifting of
    > articulating the competing jurisprudence, the humanity
    > of Justice Blackmun's exclamatory dissent is
    > extraordinary and relevant:
    > "Poor Joshua! Victim of repeated attacks by an
    > irresponsible, bullying, cowardly, and intemperate
    > father, and abandoned by respondents who placed him in
    > a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned what
    > was going on, and yet did essentially nothing except,
    > as the Court revealingly observes, "dutifully recorded
    > these incidents in [their] files." It is a sad
    > commentary upon American life, and constitutional
    > principles - so full of late of patriotic fervor and
    > proud proclamations about "liberty and justice for
    > all" - that this child, Joshua DeShaney, now is
    > assigned to live out the remainder of his life
    > profoundly retarded. Joshua and his mother, as
    > petitioners here, deserve - but now are denied by this
    > Court - the opportunity to have the facts of their
    > case considered in the light of the constitutional
    > protection that 42 U.S.C. 1983 is meant to provide."

  9. This is very disturbing to me. Last evening while watching The Call on NY1,a caller expressed the sentiment that the ACS employees didn’t get paid enough money to go into the home of Nixmary to investigate further.

    Since when does it take $ to realize and alert the proper professionals? Police

    Are these the kinds of people, our neighbors, that we rely upon to say something if they see something with regard to national security as well.

    Perhaps we should put a price tag on breathing as well. (although there probably is one)

    I don’t believe that this issue of being underpaid could possibly become a credible excuse why this poor child has been allowed to pass on to something much better than her time on Earth

  10. As usual, I have something to say. The system sucks! We keep putting money into failing systems and think that will help. One thing I clearly remember is that my daughter, now age 42, was an attendance teacher when she was 22. When I child did not appear in school for x amount of days she was sent to the childs residence to see what was going on. If need be, she was accompanied by a police officer. She was let go because of money and a budget crisis.
    Okay, 20 years later...no attendance teachers, instead a phone call and a report. In a failing school system, horrid teachers, little improvement, a union that has the City by the throat, children are dying. They can pay for all this bi-lingual education, waste money on unworkable programs, teach very little because they import teachers who barely speak English and yet they cannot afford one attendance teacher per school to check on missing children. Forget the ACS, this would be a partial answer. The ACS, if the attendance teacher could not get a satisfactory answer for the childs absence, should than go right to the home with more than an under-trained counselor but with the proper person (one with at least a masters in guidance). Four kids killed and another is going to happen because this city is full of uneducated, non-English speaking people who take drugs and drink but don't have enough cash to raise their unwanted children. Angry, that hardly describes how I feel about this.

  11. Well done, Commmissioner! The best piece I've seen on this saddening event.

    Maybe you should head a "blue ribbon" panel to investigate and make recommendations?
    Yes, I know you've already done more than your share of public service and I recall fondly walking the streets of Manhattan with you toting your ink-stained phonebook during your last campaign!
    But, you have the clout, perspective and the intellect to do something about this.

  12. The reason why people are calling for Mattingly's head to roll is that it SHOULD roll. Apparently this "highly thought of" "nationally known" "fair minded" director has not a clue how to reform the top-to-bottom corruption associated with ACS.

    How many senior managers has Mattingly fired for obvious incompetence in the past year? How many will be fired because of this incident? How many social workers, sitting casually in their offices leafing through Psychology Today will be fired? The answer is--well, probably none. Insulated by corrupt unions, protected by civil service rules, management and all levels of employees will continue to adminster an agency where, as you put it, now and then, children will be murdered. Ah well.

    At the very least, the absolute very least, Bloomberg should have called Mattingly into his office, suggested that it was unnecessary for him to have a seat, fired him and told him that as they spoke, his office was being cleared out. And then a new director should be hired, called into the mayor's office, perhaps allowed a seat, and told that unless he cleaned house from top to bottom and stopped this slaughter of the innocents, his career would follow what might well be identified as the Mattingly pattern.

    One or two such rolling heads should do it.

  13. Henry--- while the death is tragic, I am rather revolted by the tabloid exploitation of the whole thing--- I really don't need to see the chair, or read all the grusome details.

    There are monsters in this city. But those who exploit the evil and death to sell


    We need to know, and the social service agencies need to protect, yes. I'm not sure, like the

    sensational Steinberg murder years ago, we need to pick the bones clean like vultures.

  14. LatFile10:45 AM


  15. Henry: This case and your comment about going to the moon helps, I think, to focus on a major issue of our times. The Enlightenment has led us to believe that all problems can be solved. The enormous success in dealing with the physical world has suggested comparable success could be achieved in dealing with matters of the spirit. The enormous success in dealing with the physical world has suggested that all problems can be solved. There is no excuse for failure. I sense that this is part of the rationale for the totalitarian movements of our recent century. "There must be a way to create a most perfect society."

    Newtonian science suckered our psyche into this extreme Enlightenment view. Fortunately modern science can help prepare our psyche for a more moderate view. The indeterminacy of quantum science and the temporal non-predictability of chaos theory do suggest that limits are built into what we can do and even what we can understand.

    This is not a call for giving up. We can and do improve the human condition. But it is more than rocket science

  16. 1) Money is needed to overhaul a system where case workers are overwhelmed and children fall through the cracks. Why not provide businesses with an incentive to provide funding for the child abuse system? Disney, McDonald's, The Gap, there are many who serve children and families. I am certain people would buy their goods/food from stores if they knew a portion of each sale went directly to fixing the system. Given a proper advertising slogan "Save a Life"; "America's Angels" whatever, businesses would look great, money would be raised.

    2) Incent the neighborhoods! Real money, given in the form of cash/tax breaks something directly relevant to get people to talk to authorities when they know an abuse is occuring. Teenagers need causes. People will tell on their best friend if it means they feel their conscience is eased, and they are rewarded for doing so. It is unfortunate we need a carrot, but it's human behavior. Teachers were powerless in this particular girl's situation.

    3) Along with incenting good behavior, how about punishing the voyeurs?? People who see children who are abused and do not report (not just doctors) should be ticketed/fined/jailed in some cases. Child abuse is a crime. Aiding or abetting it is too. This will give those who fear a kick in the right place to pick up the phone.

    4) Streamline through the bureaucracy of the system. I believe Michael Bloomberg will, or has, put someone in charge who will cut through all the redtape and overhaul the system. It begins with the person on top (as Harry Truman said, "the buck stops here"). However we all need to share in this awful calamity effecting our voiceless victims: our children. After all, if society turns their eyes from these vicious crimes, these kids will grow up to resent and do harm to their worlds. The cycle we don't want to occur.

    Let's do something today, for the sake of the good in the world.

  17. I never answer your letters but this time I share your outrage and hope you’ll pursue answers to the questions you raise. You are too kind to Mattingly -- his head should roll, along with many others. I am appalled by the lack of common sense on the part of all concerned – ACS personnel, police, school staff, neighbors. Everyone in Bed-Stuy knows about child abuse and must be able to recognize its symptoms, and if the evil Rodriguez – irrational, shifty, uncommunicative – didn’t raise suspicion, who could? As for Ms. Santiago, it’s not that words fail me, it’s that I don’t want to put them in an email. The media – non-judgmental to a fault – have tastefully declined to talk about her. At least from what I’ve seen.

  18. Henry: You have written an admirable review and history of Nixzmary's tragic death. You have been very comprehensive in identifying the breakdown in city services. But this little girl's death at the hand of a parent or surrogate parent is what I call the crest of the wave of serious child abuse and neglect. It is unlikely that any amount of conscientious monitoring by ACS could detect or prevent the true level of child abuse in the city. The focus of city resources should be dedicated to preventing the conditions that give rise to the abuse of children. This means implementing the public health approach to prevention. Nurse home visitation for low-income pregnant women and follow up for a year or more has been proven significantly effective in many studies. Nurse-social worker teams go to the home and teach prenatal nutrition, well-baby care, milestones of child development, the consequences of neglect or abuse on a baby or child, and how to get pleasure from mothering a child. Monitoring and detection of child abuse is very important. But true prevention begins much earlier with services to pregnant women and young mothers. Violence against children will be an important curriculum subject when the Institute for Violence Prevention is established at NYU. I look forward to telling you more about what we're doing.

  19. Like all New Yorkers I was outraged when I saw the headlines of the Daily News and Post on the day little Nixzmary Brown was murdered. I cannot say I read the whole article because of its nightmarish brutality. The word "Shame" splattered across the front page, affected me, though. "Shame", I asked myself, or, "Why"? Certainly "Why" registers a more proactive, less complacent attitude.

    Unaware of the levels of government, social agencies and schools, involved to some extent in the child's young life, my first thoughts were of the neighbors who, unless Nixzmary's mouth was taped shut, had to hear screams. Your article points out the "Don't Snitch" aspect. I agree with this, however overlooked it at the time thinking that perhaps, beatings of children were normal in this environment. Then I recalled a recent trip to Florida for the wake and funeral of my uncle, a fatality of Hurrican Katrina. My cousin, a medical intern, was there with her four-year old, problemed child. At four he is still in diapers and screams bloody murder if anyone but a member of his immediate family comes near him. I watched as she unfastened his diaper and wacked him hard on the buttocks. Then, she carried him to his two older brothers and instructed them to, "Spank Vinny, spank Vinny. Vinny wants a spanking." Mom and boys laughed as Vinny cried. A social worker, I know that spanking fosters feelings of low self-esteem, anger and when done in public, humiliation. Also, it is damn right not effective in changing behavior. It may repress it until later in life a more monstrous problem than that requiring spanking appears. I spoke to my cousin about it and she told me a former nanny told her she must discipline her kids. My cousin failed to check on the nanny's credentials She had a teenage daughter who died at eighteen because of an allergic reaction to a birth control pill. Coincidence?

    Another reason neighbors and possibly agencies, too, don't get involved or further involved is fear, fear that the maniacal abuser will harm them or their families. About twenty years ago, I attended a doggy kindergarten at the North Shore Animal League in affluent Port Washington, New York. A family of father, mother and two boys aged approximately seven and nine years old attended this class together with their pup. The younger boy played around before class started in the jubilant way children do. No sooner did he do so, than Dad pulled his hair and knocked his head against the wall. Hard. The rest of us were shocked, but no one said anything to him. The next day my conscience gave me no peace until I dialed the shelter's number and reported what I saw. They confirmed that yes, the teacher had also reported it and that it was being reported to Child Welfare. You can bet that if an adult abuses a child in such a way in public, he or she does so far more horrifically behind closed doors.

    I don't believe that hiring more people to play watchdog over existing workers is the answer. The agency should look at its hiring policies. Perhaps, it is not hiring the best, most qualified, most idealist workers. The other aspects to solving this problem, because for my peace of mind I want to believe that it can and will be solved, is continuous, ongoing training of the highest order and constant outreach in the schools, the medical offices and police stations where interventions are most likely to take place. Last but not least, community programs, block associations and churches need to educate people on the proper childrearing techniques, the most humane and the most effective which in my opinion, and this is rooted in science, is lots and lots of positive reinforcement. People also must be trained to respond to the least little clue that child abuse may be taking place. Better to err on "too much", than "not enough".

    I look within myself and to the good and decency in others to see this problem solved. It was Dostoyevsky who in one of his most famous novels supported his atheism with a case of child abuse. (He later changed his idealogy and died a Christian mystic.) I ask myself as a member of a society involved in a war where thousands of civilians are killed, how many of these are children? Is our failure to end this atrocity of the same essense as our inability to prevent child abuse from slipping through the cracks of our social, educational and cultural systems?

  20. Apathy is not new and not really uncommon. My office is five minutes from the locale of the infamous Kitty Genovese rape/murder. Unless there is a recognition of our common humanity this sort of thing will continue.

  21. Thank you for this comprehensive overview of the tragic death of Nixsmary Brown. I have been forced to steel myself emotionally just to read press accounts of this barbaric case. I wonder if on some level many New Yorkers don't avert their faces from such incidents and thereby fail to demand positive changes in the child welfare system.

    Two thoughts come to mind right away in this case.

    First, as you note, the main perpetrator appears to be the "stepfather" or live-in boyfriend. This pattern is consistent with many other cases of child abuse. In fact, the single most dangerous indicator for child abuse is the presence of a live-in boyfriend. In cases like Nixzmary's we can see the tragic ending of a societal trend, which is the destruction of marriage and the nuclear family. Currently, nearly 70% of black babies are born to unwed mothers and about 50% of Hispanic children come into the world in such a condition. This social trend has been gathering steam for over 40 years, and was abetted for many years by welfare policies that made it relatively easy for pregnant women to move out on their own and have children supported by the state. (Recall that Pat Moynihan raised the alarm about this trend in the mid-1960s when the percentage of unwed births was much lower.) So on a macro scale, a reduction in out-of-wedlock births and a strengthening of the institution of marriage will tend to have a beneficial effect on the health and safety of children.

    Second, I wonder whether a municipal bureaucracy can ever be equipped to be an effective watchdog for at-risk children. From what has emerged in the Nixzmary case, it appears that some caseworkers and the district supervisor involved were less than vigilant in pursuing this case, despite repeated complaints. The statement from one ACS worker that the case was put off until after the holidays is very troubling. Child abuse does not take a holiday, even if city bureaucrats do. This pattern of municipal neglect seems to come up over and over, despite the best efforts of fine leaders such as Nick Scopetta and the "highly regarded, nationally known" John Mattingly. Is such a city bureaucracy immune to effective change?

    The biggest difference I have personally noticed in comparing the public sector with the private sector (I worked for 12 years as a planner for architecture firms and developers before coming to work in NYC government) is the comparative lack of a sense of urgency in the public sector. This is in stark contrast to my experience working for private firms. In the private sector, time is money, and a missed deadline can mean thousands of dollars in lost revenue or additional costs. So we focused relentlessly on meeting deadlines or coming in ahead of them, and below budget. Many private firms financially reward such accomplishments through performance bonuses or other incentives. On the other hand in government there is an institutional culture that the project or problem will be there next week or next month, and there is little institutional incentive to move more quickly or to be more vigilant.

    How about trying a pilot test of outsourcing child welfare in one of the city's boroughs to a private company? Establish very aggressive performance indicators and link financial rewards to meeting or exceeding these. A private firm would have much more flexibility in hiring and dismissing staff, promoting effective managers to supervisory roles, and would also be less likely to put money into paying for a top-heavy bureaucracy. As you recall, some limited social service outsourcing took place during the Giuliani administration, and even the Parks Department received financial bounties for workfare participants that we were able to place in permanent jobs.

    A tragedy like Nixzmary Brown's can be an opportunity to look at what is wrong with the city's approach to child welfare. Much beneficial change does not happen without a major crisis. As a city, our goal must be no more fatalities for at-risk children.

  22. A systemic flag should have been raised in October, when the first fatality occurred. Four children later is a case of a day late and a dollar short. An independent review process, as there had been prior to the reformation of ACS and its coming out of court supervision, should exist. The mayor’s statement that “we all failed this child” is nonsense, and I believe, a feeble attempt to evade specific responsibility. However, let’s not also forget that the acts are attributable to a singular, warped individual- the girl’s “stepfather”.

  23. LIETUVOS3:39 PM

    Another great analysis.

    I find it interesting that the first entity the press, relatives and others interviewed seeking to blame was ACS. The key figures allegedly responsible for this child's death are the mother and father. Where were the wonderful relatives who now seek media attention, cry on camera and threaten litigation against the city? The Grandmother was first interviewed saying her granddaughter pleaded with her to take her in. This request was rejected for the Grandmother claimed she could not afford to take her nevermind the abuse which she now claims she was unaware of.

    To be blunt, the mother had some five children from I understand three different men. For her to try to justify her inaction saying she feared she would be beaten if she intervened in the discipline of the children and the the child was also at fault only makes the case that certain individuals should not have custody of any child. She is charged with manslaughter. If the facts before the court are proven as reported thus far, she is just as guilty of murder as her husband is.

    As for ACS, how interesting that the Supervisor who media reports claim has been under investigation for falsifying records would resign once the story hit the airwaves and he goes to the media to immediately blame ACS for this tragedy. In government, prior to Rudy Giuliani, the precept was DON'T MAKE WAVES, DON'T TAKE RESPONSIBILITY AND COVER UP YOUR MISTAKES AS WELL AS THE MISTAKES OF OTHERS. Have City agencies reverted back to this mindset????

    I do not know the requisite qualifications caseworkers must have but it would be very interesting to find out. I would not be surprised if only a high school diploma or GED would be required for this life saving job. As for the supervisor, one should investigate if criminal charges should be imposed upon him and if so charge him immediately.

    May this child rest in peace. A peace she never found during her life.

    May the parents rot in hell.

  24. The believers in returning the child to the family are like a cult. A
    brillant jurist in the Philadelphia court system, whose name (Lois ?) I
    cannot recall, but one of your assistants could locate her I am sure, wrote
    an excellent article about the need for first rate "orphanages" for such
    children since foster care has always been less than ideal. And that's
    being kind.

    In the past there were first rate homes for children, Bellfaire in
    Cleveland is one, that provided the care and education they needed to
    succeed. I worked in the pediatric clinics---the notion that the seriously
    damaged family/mother can be turned into a caring parent is just that. The
    death of this child is a tragedy that never should have happened. But as
    you can see a task force or study group is not the solution.

  25. Are there ANY consequences for a judge who fails to keep a dangerous person, a kidnapper in jail ??

    Does it matter at all ?

    If it weren't for that poor little girl, surely there would be a media cry focusing on the judge who let this happen !!

    The perp and victim are both dead -- is the judge a danger to the rest of us ?


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