2006-01-20 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Gail Nayowitz is the executive director of The Citizen’s Committee for the City of New York.

She thinks that the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) slipped up in the case of Nixzmary Brown, the seven-year-old who was allegedly recently killed by her stepfather.

“ACS has to step up and do more to keep children safe,” she told reporters.

The fact of the matter, however, is that Nayowitz and others like her who work for child advocacy groups and who mold public policy in this city are the ones responsible for the death of the little girl by demanding that the city keep at-risk children with their parents rather than placing them in foster care.

The city says that the good news is that the number of children placed in foster care has gone down dramatically in the past three years. The bad news that the city does not want to talk about is that children are dying because of that policy.

Four children have died in the last four months, one of them in Far Rockaway, as a direct result of the belief that children are always better off with their parents than they are in foster care.

Experience has taught me that it ain’t necessarily so.

For the last three years as a teacher, I was assigned to MS 202 in South Ozone Park as the school programmer and attendance coordinator.

My first job each day was to check the printer for the 407 Forms that were automatically generated by the system when a child was absent for four days in a row or a designated number of days in one month.

Those 407’s had to be addressed by the attendance coordinator and the staff. Tough cases that could not be resolved by the school were turned over to attendance teachers,

In addition, every child brought into school by the NYPD truant teams (about a dozen on a typical school day) had to have 407’s opened on them for a quick investigation of why they were not in school. Once the parents were contacted and there was a promise to get the child to school, that 407 could then be “closed.” There was often hell to pay if a school had too many 407’s as if it were the school’s fault that the kids were not attending.

Typically, I called the parents of the truants to tell them that their child had been picked up by the police when they should have been in school and to find out if the parent knew of their child’s extracurricular activity.

The majority of the conversations went something like this:

Me: “Mr. Jones, this is Mr. Schwach at MS 202. I just called to let you know that your son was picked up at 10:05 at the bodega on Cross Bay Boulevard. He should have been in school at 8:40.”

Parent: Why are the cops bothering my son? Don’t they have something better to do with their time?”

Me: Your son has math first period and he has missed it a number of times over the past two months. We require students to be on time.

Parent: He got up late so I told him he could stop for breakfast on the way to school. It’s no big deal and I don’t want the police harassing my son anymore. I am going to hold you responsible to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Me: Will you and Mrs. Jones talk to your son about getting to school on time? I’m also concerned with the bruise he has on his jaw. He says that he fell down while he was skateboarding. Do you know about it? Did you have a doctor take a look at it?

Parent: It’s none of your business what my son and I discuss. Your only business with me and my son is to make sure he gets educated. (angrily hangs up phone).

So, I check the number of times that the child had been absent or late during the school year and decide that 18 days absent and 22 days late out of 90 schools days was excessive and constituted child neglect. I check and find out that he has been out of school for various “injuries three times over the past school year.

I call ACS and get a message that a worker would call me back at his earliest convenience.

Two days later, the ACS caseworker, a harried young woman called back.

Given the facts of the case and all the contact information, she promises to “Investigate the case” to see if it is indeed a case of educational neglect, although she tells me that the case is “soft” because there is no abuse involved.

A few days later she calls me back to tell me that she spoke to the mother, who promised that the kid would be in school on time and that the kid is “prone to accidents skateboarding and riding his bike. She was not going to open a case of educational neglect or abuse because she says, “she considers the case to be minor in relation to the ‘real’ abuse cases she usually handles.”

A couple of days later, we get a 407 on a child who has been absent for a week straight. We call the parents, who tell us that the child has gone back to El Salvador to cut cane, that he is out in the forest and there is no way to contact him. She assures us that he is all right, although he will not be returning to school anytime soon.

Is the mother telling the truth? Has the child been murdered and put into a shallow grave somewhere? We have no way of knowing, but we cannot close the 407 without knowing. We turn the case over to the attendance teacher assigned to the school. He makes a home visit. Something does not seem right, and he calls ACS to investigate.

ACS agrees to investigate and, two weeks later, makes a home visit. We get a call from the caseworker.

“I went to the home today,” she tells me. “There was food in the refrigerator and the younger kids looked all right. We have no reason to think that the family is lying about him being sent home. We are closing the case.”

Still another case from the MS 202 files:

A young girl comes to school with bruises on her face and arms. Her teacher refers her to the guidance counselor, who listens to her story that her stepfather beats her and her sisters. The counselor calls both ACS and the police.

Because this is an emergency situation where the child may have to be removed from the home immediately, an ACS caseworker joins a police officer in going to the home.

The ACS worker interviews the child’s mother while the cop listens in.

The mother explains that the young girl often lies, that she fell down while riding her bicycle. She shows a dented bike to the worker and the cop. Her home looks clean and stable. The child’s doctor says that she sees no indication of abuse. No abuse case is opened.

Many of those things happened in Nixzmary’s case. Her mother told the caseworker that the young girl had missed 46 days of school because she was just too overworked to get her off each day. Doesn’t that sound like educational neglect to you? It did not sound like neglect to the caseworker.

Nixzmary was bruised and beaten, she was emaciated. The school social worker called ACS a number of times to initiate an investigation, to get the kid away from what she knew was an abusive home.

The girl’s parents, however, refused to allow a caseworker into the home. The worker and his supervisors apparently did not think the case was bad enough to ask for a warrant.

Nixzmary died. She will not be the last as long as the mantra is to keep the kids with the parents. That is not acceptable to the public and it certainly should not be acceptable to those who are tasked with watching over the city’s children.

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