Profiling A Supervisor Accused In Young Girl's Death

Michele Norris interviews Jennifer Gonnerman, author of the article "The Knock at the Door" in the Sept. 19 issue of New York Magazine. The piece is about a caseworker supervisor being prosecuted for negligent homicide for the beating death of a 4 year old. The child was only 18 pounds when she was allegedly beaten to death by her mother in 2010. Gonnerman says the case has implications for overworked caseworkers everywhere.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris.

We've all seen the news stories: tragic tales of horrific abuse inflicted on children. State and local governments have systems in place designed to protect those kids, but bureaucracies are often too overwhelmed by the number of cases.

We're going to spend some time now looking at one case that's profiled in New York Magazine. It's about a supervisor who was overseeing a case where a four year old died. The supervisor was not only fired, she is also now facing trial for negligent homicide. It's the first time that's happened in New York City.

Jennifer Gonnerman wrote the story for New York Magazine and she joins us now. So glad you're with us, Jennifer.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, your piece is called "The Knock at the Door," but it wasn't the knock of a social worker on a parent's door. Instead, Chereece Bell, the social worker, was the one who received the knock at the door. Tell us more about Chereece Bell. Who is she?

GONNERMAN: Sure. Until last fall, Chereece Bell was a supervisor at a child welfare agency in New York City working in Brooklyn in one of the very toughest zones in the city, overseeing something called the Hospital Unit, which dealt with some of the most severe cases of abuse.

A child on her caseload died, a child that was supposed to be supervised by one of her caseworkers, and she lost her job, was forced to resign. Six months later, while she's sitting at home doing the laundry, waiting for her son to come home from school, suddenly, there is a knock on the door. And this time it was some detectives from the Brooklyn district attorney's office coming with handcuffs to lock her up.

NORRIS: And she winds up finding herself in a very different position, not someone who has sort of overseen cases where people are charged with all kinds of things. She herself was charged.

GONNERMAN: Exactly. It was a very brutal experience, of course. You know, one day, she's a city supervisor. The next day, she's on Rikers Island in a jail cell trying to figure out how to make bail, trying to figure out if she's going to be convicted of these charges, which, if she is, she could face up to four years in state prison.

NORRIS: And how did it lead to her criminal charges? What did they find in an investigation?

GONNERMAN: You know, of course, when the child died, her superiors at the child welfare agency went into the computers to figure out what was she doing, what was the caseworker doing and they found almost no notes, you know, which is obviously very startling. It looked like they'd been doing nothing and that ultimately led to them being forced to resign and nobody could have predicted this. And ultimately, this led the Brooklyn district attorney's office to bring charges and to charge both workers with criminally negligent homicide.

NORRIS: How does Chereece Bell explain that absence of notes?

GONNERMAN: You know, she insists that, even though the notes had not been put in the computer, that her worker - or at least her worker says that he made, I think, it was five visits to the family over those months and that he just didn't put the notes into the system, which might seem hard to believe. But when I interviewed other caseworkers in the office, it sounded pretty standard that people were weeks behind in inputting notes into the system, perhaps not months behind, but weeks behind because the paperwork demands of this job are so onerous.

So from her point of view, she feels her worker was making the required visits. They would discuss it occasionally and, to her knowledge, there was nothing amiss going on.

NORRIS: I'd like to know a little bit more about the other side in this case, the prosecution. What's at the heart of their case and why would that office take this rather extraordinary step of arresting workers from the administration for children's services? This is the first time this has happened in New York City.

GONNERMAN: Right. I mean, it is a very good question. You know, when these two individuals were arrested, they were all over the local media here in New York. Their pictures were on the front page of the New York Times and when I saw their pictures, you know, immediately I assumed, well, they must be the most incompetent people in the office, sleeping at their desks, leaving early. I mean, of course, you would assume that if they'd been arrested.

And when I started doing interviews, I realized, in fact, almost the opposite was true. And at least in the case of Chereece Bell, she was considered something of a star supervisor in this office. And so that really raised the question: How much of this case has to do with personal failings on her part or her caseworker's part and how much of it has to do with systemic problems that affect all the workers in that agency? And that's really not the question being asked in criminal court.

Of course, really, the question there is a much narrower question, so they're talking about guilt or innocence in a case of criminally negligent homicide. And in the words of the lead prosecutor in this case, she alleges that, by Chereece failing to perceive that this child was at specific risk to be injured and to be killed and not acting as she and her caseworker were required to act, they committed criminally negligent homicide. And those are the words of Jacqueline Kagan, who is the lead prosecutor in this case.

NORRIS: So since you asked the broader question, what's the answer? Was this a case of personal failings or larger systemic problems?

GONNERMAN: You know, I found the question of - if there weren't notes in this case file, what were these workers doing all day? That was sort of my question, you know, and from talking to their coworkers, I found out that they were, in fact, very hardworking, dedicated individuals. So what was going on here?

And I learned that in the case of the supervisor, Chereece Bell, she was spending an extraordinary amount of time, perhaps most of her hours of the day, in meetings, many of these meetings which she and her coworkers consider virtually useless in terms of getting their job done.

And in the instance of the caseworker, he was spending an incredible amount of time in family court. And everybody in New York City, for the most part, knows that the family court here is a notoriously inefficient system. So essentially, he was spending hours on a wooden bench every day, waiting for cases to be called that he was involved in. He might be there three or four times a week. He might be there twice a day.

And so I think a lot of the inefficiencies that are baked into the system, whether it's the court system or the child welfare system, come to play in this case and really need to be examined closely, you know, to really sort out that complicated question of how much of it is personal feelings and how much of it is systemic failings.

NORRIS: What happened to the four year old's mother and her family members?

GONNERMAN: The four year old's mother - her name is Carlotta Brett-Pierce - is now in jail, as is her grandmother. The mother is charged with murder. The grandmother is charged with manslaughter, so their cases are pending and they'll likely go to trial early next year.

NORRIS: Now, I have to say, Jennifer, this piece is very sympathetic to Chereece Bell. Is this story a piece of advocacy journalism on your part?

GONNERMAN: You know, I don't consider it a piece of advocacy journalism. I mean, when I came into this story, I hadn't covered child welfare before. I was mostly just interested in trying to understand the job from the workers' point of view.

So as I mentioned before, you know, obviously, when you saw the initial coverage, it was incredibly damning of these two individuals who were arrested and when I started - and then that led to workers taking to the streets and, at one point, there were 500 child welfare workers in front of the Brooklyn district attorney's office with signs chanting drop the charges, and so forth.

And, you know, the story of what this job is actually like and what the day-to-day work conditions are for these workers has never really been told, at least not in New York City, because the agency doesn't really permit them to talk publicly, so I feel like we as a public are very ignorant about the stresses of this job, the frustrations, the challenges. And I saw this story as an opportunity to sort of crack that open and find out how the agency really worked and what the jobs were truly like and so that's what I really tried to do in this story.

NORRIS: What's been the reaction to the story so far?

GONNERMAN: You know, every day, people really relate to this story. One of the challenges that Chereece Bell was up against in her job was that she was essentially doing two jobs. She was the supervisor of a unit and these units had previously had two supervisors. And so she was doing two jobs and begging for, you know, an assistant. And I think the idea of somebody doing two jobs and then being punished when things go wrong, a lot of people can relate to that.

NORRIS: Jennifer Gonnerman's piece in New York Magazine is called "The Knock at the Door." Jennifer, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

GONNERMAN: Thank you, Michele.

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