After Conviction of Mom and Grandmother in Tot’s Death, Focus to Shift to Girl’s Caseworkers

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A case that began with the discovery of an emaciated and battered body of 4-year-old Marchella Brett-Pierce in September 2010 came to an end this week, when her mother and grandmother were given maximum jail sentences after being found guilty of the child’s death.

But a second phase awaits. Two former Administration for Children’s Services workers will face trial on a top charge of criminally negligent homicide. This is thought to be the first time ACS workers have been charged with a homicide in connection to the death of a child in the department’s care in the city’s history.

Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office alleged Damon Adams and Chereece Bell contributed to Marchella’s death when it filed charges against them in March 2011. According to the indictment, Adams, Marchella’s case worker, falsified ACS computer records by making an entry after the girl’s death to make it appear as though he had visited the Brett-Pierce family. Bell is charged with neglecting to properly oversee and monitor Adams’ work.

Legal experts in interviews with WNYC said the mother’s and the grandmother’s convictions will not impact the caseworkers’ cases. But they added that what happens with those cases could have significant ramifications not just for New York City, but also for the rest of the country.

Law professors said the mother’s and the grandmother’s duties were different from those of the caseworkers, who were supposed to protect children from parental misconduct that is intentional, reckless, and negligent.

“Those obligations don’t change just because they found the parent and the grandparent criminally liable,” said Randi Mandelbaum, professor of law at Rutgers University, referring to Adams and Bell. “In some ways it shows how serious it was and that they probably should have taken action and didn’t.”

A pre-trial hearing in Adams’ and Bell’s cases is scheduled to take place this month, but a trial date has not been set yet.

Joshua Horowitz, Bell’s attorney, also said his client’s case would not be affected by the mother’s and grandmother’s convictions, but still did not understand why the charges against her were brought in the first place.

“If you indicted Chereece Bell, you could have indicted the commissioner [of ACS] and you could have indicted the mayor,” he said. “It seems to be a pattern where the low man on the totem pole gets indicted and gets in trouble, and the bosses go scot-free.”

Jane Spinak, professor of law at Columbia University, said that whatever happens with Adams and Bell could have an effect on child welfare agencies across the country — and not necessarily a positive one.

“It could embolden other prosecutors to pursue caseworkers in similar kinds of situations,” Spinak said. “That may not be good for most children who are in the child welfare system and for most people who are trying to do the right thing as caseworkers in that system.”