Fear of a 'Nixzmary' Panic

The death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown has placed an intense spotlight on child protection, with the Administration for Children's Services seeing more abuse reports and diatribes against the system for failing the little girl. The furor could land more kids who are suspected of being abused or neglected in foster care. And that makes people like Sharwline Nicholson very nervous.

Back in 1999, ACS took Nicholson's two kids away because she was a victim of domestic abuse. There was no evidence that the kids were in danger, she says, nor any real investigation. Nicholson sued the city and won. Now she chairs the board of the Child Welfare Organizing Project and is one of the people who fears a "foster-care panic" in the wake of the Nixzmary case. "Do you stop for a moment to consider the tragic effects of an unnecessary removal and the scars that it leaves on children?" she asks.

The point isn't that Nixzmary's case workers were right to drop the ball. "In this case you needed a full-scale intervention," says Martin Guggenheim, president of the National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform. His worry is that ACS is going to roll back some of the recent reforms, which he says have resulted in fewer foster care placements and no decrease in child safety. Guggenheim credits Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ACS Commissioner John Mattingly for not "fomenting" a foster care panic, as their predecessors might have done. But he's anxious that signs point to more foster care placements: ACS has undertaken a review of all open cases where kids weren't placed in foster homes, he says, but not of all the cases where children have been placed—perhaps wrongly in some cases.

For every harrowing tale heard in recent days of kids who've died because no one picked up on obvious signs of abuse, Nicholson and others who spoke at a Monday press conference had horror stories of their own: of kids taken from their mother for no good reason, perhaps because she was poor, or because her husband was a thug, and of abuse in foster homes. Violet Rittenhour, an organizer with CWOP, says she has to look her 10-year-old son in the eye each morning to reassure him that he will see her at the end of the day. Her 14-year-old daughter, who allegedly was sexually abused in foster care, has written as essay called, "I'm scared of ACS."

An obvious aspect of the debate is race. Foster care, says Northwestern School of Law professor Dorothy Roberts, "is primarily an institution for children of color." She says one in 10 kids in Central Harlem are in Foster Care, and black kids are 10 times as likely to end up in foster homes as whites. Roberts says this racial disparity reflects the fact that many kids are taken for their homes not because of suspected abuse, but on the grounds of neglect—for reasons "usually related to poverty." This sows distrust of ACS, Roberts says, and makes people more reluctant to report abuse even when it is quite obvious, as it might have been for those around Nixzmary Brown.


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