updated 1/28/2006 1:48:37 PM ET 2006-01-28T18:48:37

There is no argument that Nixzmary Brown’s death was horrific; the 7-year-old Brooklyn girl was allegedly tortured and beaten by her stepfather. There is, however, concern and contention over the next phase for New York City’s child protection agency and the families it monitors.

Some child-welfare advocates worry that the tragedy is being compounded by what they call “foster-care panic.” The phenomenon, which has occurred in several states over the years, happens in high-profile cases after an abused child in a family already under scrutiny is killed and authorities then sharply increase the number of children removed from their parents.

Often, some experts argue, the result is a harmful overreaction to public pressure. Too many children have been wrested from poor but well-meaning parents and placed in troubled foster-care systems where the long-term outlook for children is bleak, they contend.  Florida, Illinois, Washington and Connecticut are among the states which some advocacy groups say have experienced foster-care panic in the past 15 years.

Possible evidence of such a syndrome has surfaced in New York, where — compared to the same period last year — abuse reports nearly doubled (to 3,307) and foster-care placements doubled (to 291) in the 12 days after Nixzmary’s death earlier this month. The trend is alarming advocates who have praised New York for a dramatic reduction of foster-care rolls since an uproar over the 1995 beating death of 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo by her mother.

“Despite all the good work, they’ve still got a panic on their hands now,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “They’ve got to do more to stop it, for the sake of children’s lives.”

Seeking balance
Officials at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services are respectful of such concerns and say they are seeking a balanced reaction to Nixzmary’s death.

“It’s legitimate for the advocates to be concerned — they’re on the front line, they know the history,” said ACS deputy commissioner Jennifer Jones Austin.

Still, she said, her agency had improved from the mid-1990s and now — faced with a surge of calls from neighbors, doctors and teachers reporting suspected abuse — is better able to assess which at-risk children should be removed and which can remain at homes while their families are supervised.

“People who suspect abuse have got to let the authorities know,” Austin said. “The number of reports are up, removals are slightly up, but we’re not seeing a panic.”

New York at a crossroads
The response to Nixzmary’s death is a critical test for New York, said Michael Arsham of the Child Welfare Organizing Project.  The advocacy group’s members include many mothers whose children were removed after the Elisa Izquierdo case but who have been cautiously pleased by subsequent policy shifts.

“For them to begin to see ACS as a more positive presence in the communities—that’s huge progress,” Arsham said. “We sit now right on the cusp of losing that if we’re not careful.”

Arsham’s staff includes Violet Rittenhour, who said her two children were taken into foster care for a year in 2001 because caseworkers felt, that as a single mother juggling work and college, she couldn’t properly care for them.

Bad news affects child protection efforts
Despite measured statements from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials, Rittenhour believes most front-line child-protection workers have been affected by intense news coverage of Nixzmary’s death and are so wary of being blamed for a similar tragedy that they unnecessarily recommend removal of children.

“They’re still acting on the premise of, ‘When in doubt, remove,”’ Rittenhour said.

Austin insisted that New York would not revert to that policy — but did want to be vigilant in identifying endangered children whose plights might have been overlooked.

“We need to make sure we don’t have these whipsaw reactions,” she said. “It’s about making the right decision for each and every child. ... and in each and every case, safety is going to govern.” The mayor seems to agree. Dismayed at the recent deaths of Nixzmary and three other children monitored by ACS, Bloomberg this week said he is adding a law enforcement presence to child welfare field offices.

Illinois, like New York, is credited by advocacy groups with having learned lessons from past overreaction. That state experienced what advocates describe as an intense foster-care panic after the 1993 death of 3-year-old Joseph Wallace, who was hanged by his unstable mother after being returned to her Chiacgo home despite experts’ misgivings.

Sharp increase in foster care
Ben Wolf, a Chicago-based American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said the ensuing outcry led to a tripling of foster-care placements — to more than 50,000 in 1996 — before a new child welfare director, Jess McDonald, calmed the panic and changed policies. By now, Wolf said, the number of Illinois children in foster care is down to 17,000, yet with a better safety record than at the peak of the panic.

“Removing kids from their families, especially to the care of strangers, is always psychologically devastating and entails huge risks,” Wolf said.

In Florida, by contrast, the number of children in foster care has remained high since placements more than doubled after the 1998 beating death of 6-year-old Kayla McKean by her father.

“Every time there’s a horrific child death, the reaction is for legislators to convene and expand the net, which results in more children in foster care,” said lawyer Howard Talenfeld of the advocacy group Florida’s Children First. “When you have twice as many children and don’t double the resources, you weaken your foster system.”

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