ACS Struggles to Remake Itself in Wake of Nixzmary Brown Case

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It's been nearly a year since the death of a 7 year old girl caused a major shake up at the city's child welfare agency. Nixzmary Brown died a violent death at the hands of her step-father. Caseworkers, police and her school missed opportunities to help her. In response the Administration for Children's Services has been struggling to remake itself and protect at risk children. WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez has this report on the agency's progress so far.

REPORTER: It was in early January when Nixzmary Brown - an undernourished 7 year old - was found dead inside her brooklyn apartment. She was beaten to death over a broken computer printer and her small body showed obvious signs of past abuse. The case made headlines for weeks and exposed the flaws of a complicated and overburdened system. During his annual state of the city address in the weeks following the death, Mayor Bloomberg promised that every possible step would be taken to make sure no child slips through the cracks:

BLOOMBERG: The death of Nixzmary Brown will long be remembered in New York as a terrible tragedy, but I am determined to see that her death will not be in vain. I promise you we will do everything we can to protect innocent children from suffering at the hands of abusers.

REPORTER: Significant changes did happen. Several high level managers were either fired or moved to different jobs and police liaisons were hired to ease the sometimes tense relationships between caseworkers and officers at police precincts. One of the most significant improvements was the hiring of about 560 new caseworkers. Even though that's a large number of new hires, it hasn't had the affect the agency thought it would because of the increase in reports of child abuse and neglect. ACS says reports went from about 49-thousand in 2005 to about 64-thousand in 2006. The agencies commissioner, John Mattingly, says the reports have been part of the public response which he calls unprecedented:

MATTINGLY: Even at times when there were public child deaths 10 years ago, 15 years ago. The size of the public response now is much greater. So at the time we are trying to turnaround completely how we go about doing our work. We have also had to struggle with this huge increase.

REPORTER: In addition to the increased volume of reports, there is also the problem of caseworkers getting burnt out. Attrition has always been an issue with this line of work because of the level of pressure and the serious consequences that a mistake can have. The ones most prone to leave are the ones who've just started. In August alone nearly 50 caseworkers out of just over a thousand left ACS. City councilman Bill DeBlasio is chair of a committee overseeing the agency:

DEBLASIO: I'm thrilled that there's been new hiring but the real question is how long are those workers going to stay at the job and are we going to have some kind of continuity because if you have constant turnover it's going to be very hard to handle these cases the way we need to and the other problem is even if the caseworker situation is positive we have a major problem in the family court system.

REPORTER: DeBlasio says the result of an overburdened court system is serious cases linger much longer than they should. Mattingly admitted there is a shortage of ACS lawyers. He says 30 attorneys were hired this year and another group is currently being trained.

ACS has also done basic things such as get their caseworkers cell phones and access to the internet, They also hired 20 former cops and others with law enforcement backgrounds to try to help caseworkers, especially the inexperienced ones investigate complicated cases. They will act as consultants inside field offices. The commissioner and other top level officials are also trying to learn what's happening inside field offices by holding weekly meetings with case managers. Data is poured over at these meetings in order to spot troublesome trends.. Mattingly says these meetings have revealed that his staff still have a long way to go:

MATTINGLY: We have to do it right everytime everyday. The public is right to expect that of us but there will be circumstances where we make mistakes because we gathered on all the facts but we didn't have enough to act on. On the other hand, we will be there and we will continue to get stronger as we go along. There are sadly too many people in this city who will hurt or even kill a child and you can't stop them all, you never will.

REPORTER: But there are fatalities that could have been prevented. Mattingly has been praised for being honest and forthcoming about his agencies challenges but it's still unclear whether the reforms will have the long term impact of protecting some of the city's most vulnerable children. for wnyc, I'm Cindy Rodriguez