Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Next time, ACS, just say you’re sorry and go away

The tabloids quickly dubbed her "the miracle girl." Her name is Destiny Antonio. According to a story in yesterday's New York Times, here's what happened.

Destiny lives in a seventh floor apartment in a public housing project in the Bronx. There have been problems with the windows at least since July, according to her mother. She'd complained to the New York City Housing Authority, but the windows still hadn't been fixed by 1:00 a.m. last Friday morning. Then, according to the Times:

Ms. Antonio said she was asleep early Friday when Destiny was awakened by noise in the courtyard.

"Somebody was out there arguing," Ms. Antonio said, relaying her daughter's account.

Destiny apparently climbed down from her top bunk, and stepped up on a windowsill to investigate. The window had protective metal guards on the bottom, but Destiny pulled down the top half of the window and stuck her head through. Ms. Antonio said the window was supposed to lower only four inches, but Destiny managed to pull it down seven inches.

Somehow, she fell out, barely missing three air-conditioners and a grate made of metal and concrete below. She landed on a patch of overgrown grass, dazed but conscious.

So far, nothing in any news account contradicts this version of events.

As one would expect, Destiny suffered multiple serious injuries, and she'll have to be in the hospital for months. What one might not expect is that she would be forced to face interrogation in her hospital bed, at least twice, from New York City's Administration for Children's Services.

News accounts don't say how the agency was called in, but ACS is required to investigate any case forwarded by the state child abuse hotline in Albany. However, if the news accounts of this case are correct, as soon as a caseworker got to the home, examined the windows and conferred with police she should have had the decency to do three things:

1. Tell Ms. Antonio how sorry she was about what happened to her daughter.

2. Ask if there was anything the agency could do to help.

3. Go away.

But that's not what happened.

Although it was only a few months ago that there was a big fight over layoffs at the agency, ACS apparently was able to spare three caseworkers to traumatize the family with one interview after another. According to the Times, Ms. Antonio says they

swept through her home, taking pictures and pressing her children for information. During an interview, one investigator asked her 12-year-old son, Tamar, if he drinks alcohol, she said.

ACS actually was outnumbered by the cops – 12 police officers; so I guess the NYPD doesn't have much to do, either.
And that wasn't the end of it. An ACS worker was scheduled to interview Destiny, again, in her hospital room, Tuesday morning.

If the news accounts are wrong, and there was some good reason for ACS to behave as it did, then, thanks to an unusual law in New York, ACS has the legal right to explain itself. In this case, I think it also has the moral obligation to do so.

It is coincidence that on Monday, I began a series of posts to this Blog about ACS' retreat from reform. But this case is the perfect illustration.

On the one hand, the ACS response here still is better than what would have happened in many other communities. There are plenty of places where, in a case like this, the children would have been thrown into foster care on the spot – and that includes New York City when things were at their worst in 1997 and 1998.

But even when a child is not removed from the home, a child abuse investigation can be an enormously traumatic experience for that child and her or his siblings, even under the best of circumstances. After what this family has been through, the last thing the children need is the fear that they could be taken away at any moment, or anything else that undermines their chance to regain some sense of security.

There were a few years when ACS understood that. In fact, I'm sure the people at ACS understand that even now – but the fear engendered by the agency's post-Nixzmary Brown get-tough swagger means that the children in this family must keep fearing that they'll be taken away at any moment. And a little girl who survived a terrifying ordeal has to wonder when her next visitor in the hospital will be still another ACS caseworker.

ACS isn't helping its credibility with a silly claim in the Times story that, in the words of a spokeswoman, "This is a normal procedure any time a child is injured and adult caregivers are present when it happens."

In that case, I guess all parents had better think twice about teaching their children to ride a bicycle without training wheels – after all, you never know when the child might try to go too fast, fall off and break a bone. Even taking a young child to the playground now has its risks. And, as I said above, if it's normal procedure to send three ACS caseworkers to a single case, then workers must have a lot of time on their hands.

But of course this isn't really "normal procedure" in every case. It's only "normal procedure" in a case that already is in the news at an agency which might as well change its name from ACS to CYA – and where the family under scrutiny is poor and minority.

As it happens, I was 7-years-old and my brother was 2 when our family moved into a seventh-floor apartment in the Bronx. Unlike the Antonio apartment, It had no window guards on the bottom windows and no limits on how far you could open the top windows. They weren't required back then. But had anything like this happened to one of us, you may be sure our family would not have been harassed by the Bureau of Child Welfare (as ACS was known then). Because our seventh floor apartment was in a co-op (that's New York-speak for what amounts to a condo). And it was in Riverdale, a neighborhood some residents won't even acknowledge is in the Bronx.

More tomorrow.