Young Children Killed By Trusted Caretakers
It is a tragic, dirty little secret in New York City African American and Latino communities: young children killed while under the care of the mother's male companion. In 2008, 21 children met this fate. There were 8 in 2009. As of October 15 this year, 19 children as a result of the husbands of their mothers and the companions of the mothers. The most recent incidents took place in central Brooklyn. Grassroots advocates are silent in the face of 48 children killed in this manner during the past three years.
Several governmental entities have been grappling with this situation. Earlier this month, the City Council Committee on General Services, chaired by Annabel Palma, held a hearing on this matter. At that hearing, Councilmember Letitia James voiced her concern, calling the latest incident on Kingston Ave. “extremely troubling.” James noted “most of these children are children of color.” She has joined a campaign launched last summer to “alert women that they should be more careful and should know who is minding their baby.” The council member has “begun to notify a number of hairdressers and nail salons and places where women are located.” In addition, James said the situation “underscores the need for 24-hour daycare services in the City of New York.”
Four years after the death of Nixmary Brown, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) has adopted a variety of policy and structural changes, with mixed results. In July, the Mayor and ACS launched an education campaign urging parents to be cautious when leaving children with caregivers, even those who are relatives or close family friends. “Be Careful Who Cares for Your Child” is a radio and poster campaign created in response to a number of recent child fatalities in New York City, allegedly at the hands of a person the mother considered to be a trusted adult. The impetus for the campaign came as a result of 9 children under the age of 2 who had been killed while left in the care of their fathers, their mother's companions, or a babysitter between January and July of 2010. In 2009, there were “only” three such fatalities in New York City.
With the need for culturally sensitive preventative services so great, ACS has made changes that have had the net effect of reducing the number of available community based organizations of color. At the hearing, James raised the issue of “the impact of the loss of social services in urban centers throughout the City of New York” and “the adverse impact on agencies of color.” James said that “a majority of CBOs of color, particularly in Central Brooklyn, are no more.” She noted that “community-based providers were the last service providers to come into the system as the government realized the need to address the cultural and ethnic needs of a targeted population – but they were the first to leave as the child welfare system downsized and decided to issue RFPs.” In his testimony, ACS Commissioner John Mattingly admitted “seven of ten agencies that we lost in the RFP process were agencies of color.” James responded by asking “whether or not there could have been a more effective corrective action plan that would have saved these agencies, whether or not it was a change in leadership, change in staff, tighter supervision.” She explained to the Commissioner “I don't have to tell you that the vast majority of children in your agency are children of color. And so it's critically important that the agencies that address the needs of these children reflect the same and are also culturally sensitive and live in the neighborhood.”
Faye Moore, President of the Social Services Employees Union, Local 371, represents 17,000 social service professionals with over 3,000 of them assigned to the Administration for Children's Services. Moore said Local 371 “has long been a proponent of preventative services as a means of assisting families in crisis.” According to Moore, preventative services have been known to be a more effective strategy for preserving families as opposed to removing children from their homes and communities. “While these services are cut or when agencies shut,” Moore said, “the likelihood of a child slipping through the cracks increases.”
Parent Advocate Sandra Collette asked, “How do we change the image of ACS from [what] the community suspects – as it is known – as children takers or baby takers?” Collette testified that 27% of preventative services are mandated by the courts. “In my experience,” she said, “when families are approached in an effective and respectful way, most parents will engage preventative services, or do whatever they need to do in order to be with their families or help their families work through a crisis. Are we punishing families that are living in impoverished communities that are lacking resources?”
One resource available to families in crisis is Family Justice Center located within the offices of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. Jerry Schmetterer, spokesperson for Hynes said, “The death of even one child is a concern to Mr. Hynes. The DA's feelings are supported by his actions. This office is on record regarding the dangers facing women and children.” The DA's office has programs in place to assist anyone in crisis. “We have a very aggressive Domestic Violence Bureau. We have the Family Justice Center here which offers counseling and anger management to help both the victim and batterer. There are trained social workers on staff.”
Following the recent death of Marchella Pierce,” said Schmetterer, the DA ordered a grand jury investigation into all the circumstances “to try to determine why that child died.” Anyone who is suspicious, or thinks her child might have been abused is welcome to call the Family Justice Center at (718) 250-5111. If there is an emergency, however, the DA's office recommends calling 911. “We are a law enforcement agency,” said Schmetterer, “but anyone can come here and speak with a victim service counselor, rather than directly with a prosecutor.”
Assemblymember Annette Robinson recommends a community-based approach to the child deaths at the hands of the mother's significant relationship. “There is an issue of women having men around their children who have taken advantage or abused their children,” said Robinson. “This is not new.” The Assemblymember recalled when as a young mother and a member of the board of a health care clinic, she would go into the clinic and talk with young mothers about health, their babies, and relationships. “We need to do more education with mothers regarding who they allow around their children,” said Robinson. On the subject of education for males, Robinson said, “Nobody is teaching appropriate kinds of behavior to males. When I was growing up, boys were taught how to approach people, how to talk with young ladies, how to meet the family. Now, females accept males as they are. I don't see young males being taught appropriate social behaviors.”
The City offers some suggestions to mothers of young children. When choosing a caregiver, parents should select someone who has experience caring for babies and young children; is patient and mature enough to care for a fussy, overexcited or crying baby; understands that young children must always be watched; will never shake, hit, yell at, make fun of, or withhold food from a child as punishment; and does not abuse alcohol or drugs, or carry a weapon, and will not surround a child with others who may be drinking, using or selling drugs, or carrying weapons.
Warning signs of a potentially dangerous caregiver include someone who is angry or severely impatient when children have tantrums, cry or misbehave; violent and/or controlling with their partners; physically or verbally abusive with children; an abuser of alcohol and drugs, including marijuana; using prescription medications that have bad side effects or make them drowsy; and not trust worthy for any reason.
“Having raised my son as single mother, I am aware of how challenging it is to find suitable child care,’” said Council Member Annabel Palma, chair of the New York City Council’s General Welfare Committee. “Every caregiver’s primary focus must be the safety of the children. Before leaving your child in someone else’s care, ask pointed questions about the caregiver’s experience, their plan in case of emergency and how they would respond to an upset or unwell child. Set clear expectations, outline safety precautions and rules, and create an emergency contact list; post both the rules and contact list in a visible part of your home – taped to your fridge for example. Do a practice run while you are in your home with your caregiver and child, observing how the caregiver performs and how your child responds. Most importantly, trust your instincts.”
Note: Not all boyfriends engage in behaviors harmful to their girlfriend's children. Mother's of young children are encouraged to err on the side of caution in order to protect them from harm.