Gothams Administration for Childrens Services will spend nearly $2.2 billion this year. The agency, with nearly 7,000 employees, is run by an experienced professional who reputedly is tops in his field. So nobody can say that New York City isnt generous when it comes to protecting at-risk children.
But ACS and all of its financial and human resources didnt save seven-year-old Nixzmary Brown, tortured and beaten to death last week, allegedly by her mothers husband, as her mother ignored her cries for help.
Nixzmarys brutal death was a catastrophic failure of ACS. The agency had multiple opportunities to remove the little girl from her home. Mayor Bloomberg has already directed ACS to reopen thousands of cases in Brooklyn, where Nixzmary diedand a top-down review of the agencys policies and procedures, along with a wholesale housecleaning, is inevitable. And why not? New Yorks taxpayers should get the moral and social certainty theyre paying for: that children wont be murdered in their own homes. But the problem is that yet another overhaul of ACS wont save every child. Better government cant save kids from their failed families. Take poor Nixzmary, whose mother had six children by four different men. Nobody in Nixzmarys extended family can even remember the full name of the girls biological father.
Nixzmary is an extreme case. But what about one-year-old Josiah Bunch, who was beaten to death in Brooklyn in December, possibly by one of his mothers companions? Josiah, like Nixzmary, was born into a malformed family; neighbors said they thought that Josiahs unmarried mother had lost two other children to foster care.
And what about 16-month-old Dahquay Gillians, who drowned in his Brooklyn bathtub in November, apparently accidentally? Dahquay left behind an older brother who had once been placed in foster care after his mothers companion submerged him in scalding water.
Remember seven-year-old Sierra Roberts, who died of internal injuries in Queens in October after her father allegedly beat her with a belt? Sierras father had gained custody of the little girl after her drug-addicted mother vanished at birth.
And what about two-month-old Michael Segarra, found dead in his crib in Brooklyn on the same day Nixzmary was killed? Michaels unmarried mother was addicted when she took her baby home from the hospital with drugs in his system.
And thats just in the last four months.
In each of these cases, ACS probably did something wrong. But its hard to blame ACS exclusively when far too many of the citys children are born not into two-parent families but into random and temporary groupings of people, often prone to neglect and violence. ACS is no substitute for a stable, two-parent family. Without such a family as a protective cocoon, the world can be a cruel place for kidsand the home is often the locus of that cruelty. Little kids are cute, but theyre also preyparticularly when they resemble moms now-detested ex-boyfriend, or when moms new boyfriend doesnt have much fatherly concern toward the products of previous sexual encounters.
Of course, most neglected and abused children survive their childhoods, at least minimally. But that doesnt mean that neglect and abuse are uncommon in malformed families, if at a less spectacular level. Anyone who doubts that should read Adrian Nicole Leblancs 2003 book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which tracks the lives of two young mothers and their 10 children over a decade as they scrape their way through life in the boroughs Tremont section. In Leblancs book, children are only appendages, and child molestation is commonan unsurprising outcome, when kids are left with casual assortments of male relatives and acquaintances, who come and go as they please, often drunk or on drugs. It doesnt take a social scientist to know that kids raised in this environment dont stand much of a chance at doing better themselves.
Since America reformed welfare nearly a decade ago and pushed unmarried mothers to work, the general attitude is that the problem of the single-parent inner-city family is solved. But welfare reform didnt answer the moral question: Why is it considered normal in some segments of society for mothers, often unwed, to bear children by multiple men? And how much risk does governmentwhich controls the fate of so many of New Yorks vulnerable children through ACSknowingly force upon these children when it ignores this problem?
As the mayor directs ACS to open its Brooklyn cases, he should direct caseworkers to ask: How many of the agencys little wardsneglected, malnourished, or abusedhave two married parents, and full siblings, at home? Its a good place to start the discussion New Yorkand the nationneeds to have.