Should negligent child welfare workers spend time behind bars?

NPR covered an intriguing story last week about a pending New York criminal case that may have repercussions for child welfare workers across the country.

Chereece Bell was a CPS supervisor in New York City. She supervised some of the worst cases of abuse in Brooklyn in an agency department called the “Hospital Unit.” When a child whose case was handled by Damon Adams (one of her caseworkers) died, she and Adams were fired. But the worst was far from over for Ms. Bell. Six months later, Chereece Bell received a knock at her door and was informed that she and Bell were being charged by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office with criminally negligent homicide. The NY Times broke the story here.

Jennifer Gonnerman, in her New York Magazine article “The Knock at the Door,” explains that the decision to charge the two former employees was made after superiors at the child welfare agency searched the organization’s computer database and found no record of notes for the four-year-old. The girl was repeatedly beaten and weighed only eighteen pounds when she died. Her grandmother was indicted on manslaughter and other charges.

No notes at all? Seems pretty incriminating at first glance, but Gonnerman dug deeper. After interviewing other agency caseworkers, she found that Adams had allegedly visited the family five times over several months. Gonnerman also found that it was standard procedure for caseworkers to be weeks behind in entering notes into the computer database because of demanding caseloads and large amounts of paperwork. The question of whether the evidence Gonnerman found in her interviews will be enough to exonerate Bell and Adams will eventually be decided by a jury of their peers.

As the case works its way through the criminal justice system in New York, it will be interesting to see if a new precedent emerges. Will caseworkers across the country be criminally investigated if one of the children on their caseload is injured or killed? Will agencies create new regulations to prevent similar situations from occurring in their jurisdiction?

The case has received international attention. Unfortunately, no matter how the criminal case turns out, the underlying problem appears unaffected. Perhaps investigators should focus on whether this was truly a case of incompetent work, or whether the underperformance occurred as a result of too few resources allocated to such an important purpose.