Sun, May 15, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Doomed from the start?

The tragic death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce in September has put New York child welfare services under the spotlight

By N.R. Kleinfield and Mosi Secret  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

GRAPHIC: TT

She died in September by the ugliest means, weighing an unthinkable 8.2kg, 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. Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, is convening a grand jury this month 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.

Marchella’s household was brought to the agency’s attention in late 2009, yet for several months after that it appears no one there knew that the girl, hospitalized for most of her life, even existed. After she was taken home from a nursing home, she was supposed to be looked after by not one but two sets of caseworkers, one set from the city and one from a private agency under contract to the city.

Although Children’s Services ended that contract last year, records make clear that it had known for years that the private agency had troubles, including making insufficient visits to families, and that despite its flaws the city continued to employ it.

Marchella’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, 31, is charged with murder, and her grandmother, Loretta Brett, 56, with manslaughter. Both are in jail awaiting trial. Damon Adams, 37, a Children’s Services caseworker, and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, 34, are charged with criminally negligent homicide; it is thought to be the first time that city child welfare workers have been incriminated in a death. Prosecutors said that Adams had not made required visits to the family and lied about it, and that Bell had failed to supervise him. Both have left the agency.

All four have said they are innocent. None would comment for this article.

Other relatives of Marchella are dismayed about what happened to the girl.

“It’s wrong,” said Levonnia Parnell, the child’s great-aunt. “That’s not a child that asked to be here. No child deserves what she got. She got a nightmare.”

The Marcy Houses public housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, is where Marchella’s parents grew up and where their futures seemed to freeze.

Her great-grandmother Leola Brown lived in a jam-packed apartment with her daughters, Loretta and Martha, and eventually Martha’s two children and Loretta’s daughter, Carlotta. Martha, a nurse, died young of cancer. Husbands and fathers were known for their absence.

Loretta Brett and Carlotta Brett-Pierce, both wafer-thin, were known as truculent people with fiery tempers. Neighbors said they regularly smoked marijuana and crack. The police arrested Carlotta Brett-Pierce twice for criminal possession of marijuana and once for assault.

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