Gotham’s Administration for Children’s 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 isn’t generous when it comes to protecting at-risk children.
But ACS and all of its financial and human resources didn’t save seven-year-old Nixzmary Brown, tortured and beaten to death last week, allegedly by her mother’s husband, as her mother ignored her cries for help.
Nixzmary’s 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 died—and a top-down review of the agency’s policies and procedures, along with a wholesale housecleaning, is inevitable. And why not? New York’s taxpayers should get the moral and social certainty they’re paying for: that children won’t be murdered in their own homes. But the problem is that yet another overhaul of ACS won’t save every child. Better government can’t save kids from their failed “families.” Take poor Nixzmary, whose mother had six children by four different men. Nobody in Nixzmary’s extended family can even remember the full name of the girl’s 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 mother’s “companions”? Josiah, like Nixzmary, was born into a malformed family; neighbors said they thought that Josiah’s 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 mother’s “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? Sierra’s 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? Michael’s unmarried mother was addicted when she took her baby home from the hospital with drugs in his system.
And that’s just in the last four months.
In each of these cases, ACS probably did something wrong. But it’s hard to blame ACS exclusively when far too many of the city’s 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 kids—and the home is often the locus of that cruelty. Little kids are cute, but they’re also prey—particularly when they resemble mom’s now-detested ex-boyfriend, or when mom’s new boyfriend doesn’t 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 doesn’t mean that neglect and abuse are uncommon in malformed families, if at a less spectacular level. Anyone who doubts that should read Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s 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 borough’s Tremont section. In Leblanc’s book, children are only appendages, and child molestation is common—an 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 doesn’t take a social scientist to know that kids raised in this environment don’t 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 didn’t 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 government—which controls the fate of so many of New York’s vulnerable children through ACS—knowingly 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 agency’s little wards—neglected, malnourished, or abused—have two married parents, and full siblings, at home? It’s a good place to start the discussion New York—and the nation—needs to have.