NYC Ups Child Abuse Efforts In the wake of the headline-grabbing death of Nixzmary Brown, the city decided to hire retired cops to work with child protection case workers. We talk with program participants about their efforts.

NYC Ups Child Abuse Efforts

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

New Yorkers are once again hearing about the tortured life of a seven-year-old girl named Nixzmary Brown. At the murder trial of her stepfather, jurors have cried over photos of her badly beaten and emaciated body. Since her death two years ago, the city's administration for children's services has tried to remake itself. And recently it hired some 40 retired police detectives. The goal there: to help inexperienced case workers be better investigators.

From member station WNYC, Cindy Rodriguez reports.

CINDY RODRIGUEZ: Chris Detenza(ph) spent more than 20 years with the New York City Police Department. He looks young to be called a retiree, but he started his career early. On this winter day he sits in his car outside a Brooklyn child welfare office and waits for a case worker to meet him.

Detective CHRIS DETENZA (NYPD, Retired): Michel.

Ms. MICHEL JONYEA (Case Worker): Were you waiting long?


RODRIGUEZ: Michel Jonyea is 26 and wears a short red-hooded jacket. She and Detenza began working together about a year ago.

Det. DETENZA: (Unintelligible) arrest report. I'll give you a copy of that. Let me see the address that she used. Next page. Right here.

RODRIGUEZ: Detenza is helping Jonyea locate a 20-year-old mom and her nine-month-old infant. An anonymous report came to the office about three months ago, accusing her of physical abuse and of not having a home for the child. The case worker found no evidence of abuse, but says the young mom is without a permanent place to live.

Ms. JONYEA: My main focus was to finding her a shelter, you know, and unfortunately she was found ineligible by Department of Homeless Services twice.

RODRIGUEZ: Jonyea says DHS offered to send the small family to live with relatives in Puerto Rico. But the young mom refused, saying she had another place to stay.

Ms. JONYEA: I'm disappointed that they didn't ask, you know, where's this new home of yours. So they should've gotten that information to give to me, but they didn't. You know, so...

RODRIGUEZ: The two have several addresses for mother and child. Detenza used different database searches to get them. He's got experience gathering basic background information on people. This quick database access is new for case workers. They used to wait weeks for things such as domestic violence reports. In Brooklyn, Detenza and Jonyea have arrived at their first stop, the apartment of the young mom's sister. Detenza tells the case worker to ring the bell of a neighbor, not the person she's looking for. Better yet, he says, walk in if the door is open.

Det. DETENZA: This way it gives people less time to start hiding or, you know, look outside to see who's out there, prepare. Try and catch them by surprise.

RODRIGUEZ: No one is answering the bell, though.

Det. DETENZA: Sometimes it takes a while to get (unintelligible). You can't just give up.

RODRIGUEZ: Eventually a neighbor answers the front door and explains that the family is on vacation in Puerto Rico.

Det. DETENZA: Nobody's in there now? Are you sure?

Unidentified Woman: No. Sometimes - 'cause my husband, he's real good friends with them.

Det. DETENZA: The sister has a baby. We're just trying to make sure that the baby is okay.

RODRIGUEZ: Detenza insists on checking for himself.

Det. DETENZA: Do they have any family members around here that might know?

I don't like to just take the word for granted. Sometimes when I come up the stairs there's a space under the door, and sometimes you can look and you could see if their lights are on, if there's movement in the apartment.

RODRIGUEZ: No one answers and the two are satisfied the family is gone. A pile of mail confirms the neighbor's story.

Det. DETENZA: We'll go now to another relative's house and see if we can get lucky there.

RODRIGUEZ: The job of monitoring troubled families is a daunting one. Most case workers go out alone and without the help of a trained detective. Detenza spent the last ten years investigating thousands of child abuse cases as part of the NYPD's Special Victims Unit. Next they go to the young mom's brother's apartment that's over a storefront.

Det. DETENZA: He doesn't live here anymore. The guy, the brother used to live here, but the store owner told us before we went into the apartment that he moved out...

RODRIGUEZ: Jonyea says normally at this point she would stop and try again tomorrow. A pile of paperwork awaits her at the office. But Detenza points out it's important to keep up the momentum.

Det. DETENZA: But the only problem is a lot of time word travels fast. So a lot of times if you don't get what you got to get in a pretty quick time, by that time they're out of that location and they're on to their next place.

RODRIGUEZ: At the next stop the two make progress. An aunt tells them mother and daughter sleep at her apartment but spend their days with a cousin nearby. Jonyea says the aunt's apartment is clean and there's a crib and food for the baby. Now they head to the cousin of few blocks away. And 15 minutes later they emerge.

Det. DETENZA: Mission accomplished.

Ms. JONYEA: Yeah, mission accomplished. Wow. (Unintelligible) this is her cousin's house. So everybody lives in the community. She welcomed me in. She said that she's just waiting for her boyfriend to give her some money to rent a room.

RODRIGUEZ: The future for the small family is likely to be full of hardship. Jonyea says the child's father is in a rehab program. The young mom still has no permanent home and no job. The case worker says the situation is far from optimum. But she can't hang on to families forever and the case is now closed.

For NPR News, I'm Cindy Rodriguez in New York.

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