Remember “Elisa’s Law”? In 1996, New York Gov. George Pataki signed this legislation, which removed, in the words of then Speaker of the New York Assembly Sheldon Silver, “archaic confidentiality laws” pertaining to juvenile-court and medical records. The law also extended the period during which records of unfounded reports of child abuse were to be kept on file. Easier access to private records and an atmosphere encouraging anonymous tips were going to make it easier for child-protection specialists to fight abuse.
The inspiration for the law was the death of a six-year-old Manhattan girl, Elisa Izquierdo. In November 1995, Elisa’s crack-addled mother, Awilda Lopez, after subjecting the girl to starvation, humiliation, and torture, smashed her daughter’s head against a concrete wall. Lopez, who is now in jail, appears to have had children by at least three men. The man with whom she was cohabiting at the time of Elisa’s death was not the child’s father. In crafting Elisa’s Law, the New York State Assembly declared “that the deaths of children due to abuse, neglect and maltreatment despite the involvement of government agencies charged with protecting these children is intolerable and unacceptable.”
Ten years ago, the government agency that, in spite of its significant involvement in her life, failed to save Elisa Izquier-do was called the New York Child Welfare System. Today, it goes by the more antiseptic Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Other than that, it is not clear what has changed, much less improved, since the signing of Elisa’s Law.
Yet the cynical practice of naming laws after child victims continues with “Nixzmary’s Law,” named for a seven-year-old Brooklyn girl, Nixzmary Brown, whose horrifying ordeal at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend ended in her death last November. (See Mark G. Brennan’s piece in this issue for a full account of this tragedy.) The bipartisan sponsors of Nixzmary’s Law argue that stiffening the sentences for parents found guilty of murdering their children will deter such crimes. One of their colleagues, State Sen. Diane Savino, doubts it. She warns her fellow senators not to “console themselves for one second that [Nixzmary’s Law] will prevent child abuse and neglect.”
Small wonder that Savino is pessimistic. She served six years as a caseworker for ACS, doubtless remembers Elisa’s Law, and, if she has kept abreast of her old field, knows that child deaths from abuse or neglect in New York City have averaged about 30 per year for the past decade. “It’s a much bigger problem,” Savino says. “Some people should not have children.” She does not say which ones.
Nor does the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “There is no single profile of a perpetrator of fatal child abuse,” they reported in 2004, although they emphasize that perpetrators rarely have high-school diplomas, often live below the poverty line, and “may have difficulty coping with stressful situations.”
Savino is right, of course; some people should not have children. They are called unmarried people.
Consider the domestic circumstances of the following victims—children who lost their lives within a few months of Nixzmary’s death. Each child had some kind of file with ACS.
Seven-year-old Sierra Roberts of Queens was, according to a January 2006 indictment, kneed in the abdomen by her father, Russell, causing her to die from ruptured bowels and internal lacerations. Sierra entered the world testing positive for cocaine. Her relationship with her mother, Mitchelena Hines of North Carolina, ended in the delivery room. After three years in foster care, during which her father received ACS-supervised “drug treatment and parent training,” Sierra was returned to her father’s custody. In 2003, she suffered a fractured spine; six months later, a broken leg. Two separate fractures, two separate emergency rooms. When asked by ACS caseworkers about these injuries, Russell Roberts claimed that Sierra’s spinal injury was the consequence of a fall. And her leg was broken, he maintained, when he fell down the stairs while carrying her. With the access to her medical records granted by Elisa’s Law, ACS found “no evidence of abuse or neglect.”
Dahquay Gillians was a 16-month-old Bedford-Stuyvesant boy who drowned in a scalding bath in November 2005. According to the New York Daily News, paramedics found the child naked and unconscious on the bare floor, with water in his lungs and burn blisters covering his groin. His mother, Tracina Vaughn, had a previous conviction for burning Dahquay’s older brother, Tramel, in the bathtub in May 2004, an incident that resulted in blisters over 80 percent of Tramel’s body. Tracina’s boyfriend (the father of neither boy) was present at the scene when paramedics arrived but responded to questions only with “Don’t ask me, ask the mother.”
Josiah Bunch, a one-year-old Brooklyn boy, died in December 2005. When an autopsy revealed blunt trauma to the child’s neck, his unmarried mother, Latifa, was charged. Latifa has two other children—one in foster care in New York; the other, in New Jersey. Caseworkers from ACS made 12 visits to check on Josiah Bunch during his only year on earth.
On the same day that Nixzmary Brown died, two-month-old Michael Segarra was found by a neighbor face down in his crib, dead and purple. Born with drugs in his system, Michael and his single mother, Melissa, had been on the ACS watch list from his first to his last day.
Though the cause of Michael’s death has not been determined, there appears to be no doubt about the January death of four-year-old Quachon Brown of the Bronx. His mother, Alicia Smith, 26, and her boyfriend, Jose Caldarone, 18, have been charged with manslaughter and second-degree murder, respectively. Alicia told police that a television set fell on her son. An autopsy revealed atrophied leg muscles, a fractured skull, bruises consistent with abuse, and a lacerated liver. When Alicia abandoned her children and went to Atlantic City last June, Quachon and his five siblings were removed by ACS from the filthy apartment where six children shared two beds. Alicia told police that she and the children’s grandmother had miscommunicated concerning babysitting arrangements. Caldarone is not the boy’s father—though, according to police, he might be the father of three of Quachon’s siblings. Jose and Alicia did, in fact, own a 60-inch television set.
The public outcry over these tragedies has focused on the failure of the New York City ACS. Public officials have responded with investigations and by reopening cases. New caseworkers are being hired, while other caseworkers and their supervisors are receiving unpaid suspensions pending the outcome of investigations. At least two top-level administrators have been relieved of authority. Assistant Commissioner Olivia Brown, who supervised the ACS field offices in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, lost her title and now performs “administrative functions.” (Recent arrests of ACS caseworkers—one, for possession of crack cocaine; another, for abusing a pet—have further tarnished that agency’s reputation.)
Columnist Richard Cohen is also pessimistic about the benefits of more laws. He wants “a winching of the system so it is taut, closing the cracks through which Nixzmary slipped and was lost forever.” It remains to be seen how much more taut an organization with a staff of 7,000 and an annual budget of nearly $2.2 billion can be winched. More useful would be greater candor about America’s growing rejection of marriage and the often painful consequences.
Rejection of marriage—whether by divorce, illegitimacy, or cohabitation—dramatically increases children’s exposure not only to abuse and death but to all manner of disorders and pathologies, from poor academic performance to illegal drug use; from teen pregnancy to juvenile delinquency; from psychiatric disorders to poor physical health; from poverty to suicide. And children from broken (or nonexistent) homes are much more likely to reject marriage and its consequences when (and if) they become adults. Each of the perpetrators of abuse in the above stories came from nonfamilies.
When four in ten of America’s minor children do not go to sleep at night in a home where the man and woman who brought them into the world are married to each other, it cannot be said that the traditional family is the norm. The total number of unmarried women aged 15 and over is closing in on, and may well pass within the next few years, the number of married women in the same age group. More people are cohabiting outside of marriage than ever before. In 2004, there were close to 5.1 million cohabiting couples, compared with fewer than half a million in 1960. And those are unmarried couples of opposing sexes. There are more than half a million homosexual cohabiting couples. In other words, there are more homosexual cohabiting couples in America today than there were heterosexual cohabiting couples half a century ago—a development which is itself indicative of our society’s rejection of marriage.
For decades, conservative organizations, including The Rockford Institute, have collected social-science data confirming that lifelong marriage is necessary for civilization. The link, however, between the rejection of marriage and its social consequences is no longer a secret of the right. Sociologists at such liberal organizations as New York’s Institute for American Values have amassed a mountain of data. For example, children living in a home with an unrelated adult are 50 times more likely to suffer death from child abuse than are children living with their married parents. Children living with stepparents are 40 times more likely to be killed or sexually abused than children living with Mom and Dad. By other measures of child welfare, children reared in stepfamilies fare no better than those growing up in single-parent homes. Children growing up in cohabiting households, or households torn apart by divorce, face similar risks.
The left’s belated discovery of the inestimable value of marriage might be charming were it not for the previous 40 years, during which liberals promoted the practices and policies that helped marriage arrive where it is today: fornication, contraception, homosexuality, abortion, welfare, equal rights, daycare, no-fault divorce, prenuptial agreements, and lab experiments designed to replace human reproduction. Absent a renunciation of these failures, no amount of effort to reform the child-welfare bureaucracy or adjust the penal code will prevent future tragedies.