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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Marchella Pierce Convictions of social workers

This past week, two social workers (although they are not licensed social workers) plead guilty to misdemeanours related to the death of Marchella Pierce. Damon T. Adams, a caseworker in New York and his supervisor Chereece Bell had originally been charged with criminally negligent homicide. There have not been many instances where social workers have been charged with the death of a child on their caseload.  The mother and grandmother have been charged with the murder of the child.

The caseworker, Damo Adams, plead guilty to falsifying business records, official misconduct and endangering the welfare of a child. Chereece Bell plead guilty to endangering the welfare of a child and a disorderly conduct violation.

In child protection, there is a real need to build relationships with families. This is how you are able to better ascertain what is happening to risk factors and what can be done to monitor and mitigate those factors. In this case, it appears that Mr. Aadams was not attending home visits as he was to do and then apparently falsified the records. That can certainly be seen as a failure of child protection. Even if the caseload was high and the demands too great, the records should not be falsified, rather, they should reflect the truth - there was too much on the plate to get it all done.

Damon Adams and Chereece Bell

Child protection often faces work loads that can challenge what needs to get accomplished. Yet the ethics of the profession demand that truthful efforts and reporting occur.

There is less clarity on the role of Ms. Bell who is being held accountable for not catching the failures of her supervisee. 

The danger here is that there is now less room to admit errors. The case suggests systemic problems but how do those can spoken about when the risks of the criminal process hangs out there. Yet, I am also struck that there should be accountability for those charged with child protection. But there can be no valid expectation that children will not die at the hands of their parents. What worries me is the "what if" that lies under this case - If the Mr. Adams had been more diligent then the child might be alive? If Ms. Bell had done a better job of supervising then the child might be alive? These are dangerous suppositions when the present understanding is that the child died due to the actions of family.

What this case can help us to understand is that doing the job right does matter but we cannot predict the outcome - some parents will kill their children no matter how good the casework. But it also tells us that the system should be subject to scrutiny so that the systemic weaknesses can be spotted and addressed.

It is doubtful that either of these social workers will do child protection again. Yet I cannot wonder what both of them would have learned from this process that might make them far more vigilant and astute. As Ms, Bell noted in an interview, what about all the other cases where things went well and she saved a child or helped a family? 

Accountability does matter but we must also look at the environment in which child protection is done - high caseloads, limited resources and some of the most high risk families who can be very challenging to engage and work with. Errors will happen. I fear that the lesson taken here is that if you make a mistake, you may face criminal charges. Maybe the lesson should be around ensuring appropriate resources exist.

Marchella Pierce


  1. These individuals were caseworkers, NOT NYS licensed social workers!!!

  2. This is quite a valid point, although they were functioning within the scope of the work of social work. In the absence of laws that require those doing social work to be licensed as a social worker, then individuals with a variety of backgrounds will do the work of social work - thus functioning as social workers.

  3. HJ Foundation is a charitable trust run by Mr. Harish Jagtani . And one of the renowned non-profit organizations in South Africa