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Welfare workers, granny charged in girl's death

Two former child welfare workers and a grandmother pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges in the death of a 4-year-old girl who was starved, beaten and drugged.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two former child welfare workers and a grandmother pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges in the death of a 4-year-old girl who was starved, beaten and drugged, and a prosecutor announced that a grand jury would be convened to look at evidence of potential "systematic failure" in the troubled agency.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes said the former workers with the Administration for Children's Services didn't do enough to help Marchella Brett-Pierce, who weighed 18 pounds when she died in September.

Child welfare caseworker Damon Adams and supervisor Chereece Bell were charged Wednesday with criminally negligent homicide. The girl's grandmother Loretta Brett was charged with manslaughter.

Their lawyers say the three are being blamed for crimes they didn't commit.

A special investigative grand jury will consider evidence of possible "systemic failure" at the child welfare agency, Hynes said.

Marchella's death harkened comparisons to the 2006 case of Nixzmary Brown, a 7-year-old New York City girl who died of abuse and malnourishment.

In another case earlier this week, a man was charged with assault and reckless endangerment after his girlfriend's 17-month-old foster child was found unconscious and badly beaten. Kymel Oram suffered bruising, fractured ribs, a lacerated liver and a bruised spleen. He remained in critical condition, though a criminal complaint against the suspect says the toddler was likely to die.

"ACS has a single overarching mission to protect abused and neglected children in New York City. Our staff live up to this difficult and heart-breaking challenge every day," the child welfare agency said in a statement. "Yet when we fail, it can be with tragic results, which we try to learn from and make adjustments. ... When staff have failed to carry out their basic responsibilities, ACS will and does take appropriate action."

"The particular merits of this criminal case aside, we are very concerned that today's indictments of social work staff may have the opposite effect from what's intended because it may discourage excellent, idealistic individuals from taking jobs helping our society's neediest and most vulnerable children," the agency said.

Marchella's mother told police that she found her daughter's cold and unconscious body on Sept. 2 and tried to resuscitate her before calling 911. The girl was born with underdeveloped lungs, had serious trouble breathing and had a breathing tube in her throat, authorities said. She had been hospitalized in the months before her death.

Marchella's mother, Carlotta Brett Pierce, was previously indicted on murder and other charges, and has said she is innocent.

Nixzmary's death, coupled with a series of other high-profile deaths of children known to the agency, sparked public demands for child welfare reform. City officials responded by bolstering the corps of caseworkers. A state child protection law signed in October 2009 increased the penalties for an adult convicted of torturing a child, changing the maximum penalty to life in prison.

Nixzmary's mother is serving a prison sentence of up to 43 years for failing to act as her battered, malnourished child lay dying in their home. Her stepfather is serving 29 years on a manslaughter conviction for delivering the fatal blow.