Death of 6-year-old highlights dangers within child welfare system

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Alison G. reached out to PIX11, in the weeks after Zymere Perkins, 6, was carried limp in his mother’s arms from his Harlem apartment.

Zymere’s body displayed evidence of bone fractures that were old and new, along with bruises that were fresh or a few days older.

Alison is a preventive worker from Brooklyn who monitors families in crisis, working for a Catholic non-profit agency that’s contracted by the city.

She didn’t work on Zymere’s case, which was closed by an Administration for Children’s Services caseworker, despite five previous complaints filed against the child’s mother.

She knew that Zymere’s filing never reached the level of Family Court, where caseworkers can request a child in “imminent danger” be removed from his household.

Yet she wanted to talk to PIX11 about her dealings with Family Court in Brooklyn, where she sees judges handling cases of families that are struggling to stay intact after a complaint is filed with the ACS.

“It’s very difficult when they tell us to put a child back in a home that we know is not a safe situation for a child,” Alison told PIX11. The preventive worker claimed judges “push back…..90 percent of the time” when ACS workers and preventive workers agree that a child is in imminent danger.

Alison told PIX11 about one family encounter she had that was deeply troubling to her.

“There was a case that had gang violence in the home, actually had a pedophile in the home,” Alison said. “The judge allowed the child to go back.”

When we asked Family Court’s Administrative Judge, Hon. Jeanette Ruiz, about this allegation, she was quick to respond.

“There’s no way in my years of experience I could ever imagine that happening,” Judge Ruiz told PIX11 from the central, administrative office in Family Court, located in lower Manhattan. “I can tell you unequivocally that that would never happen.”

Judge Ruiz, who once worked as Deputy Commissioner and a deputy counsel at the Administration for Children’s Services, took over as Chief Administrative Judge for Family Court last fall.

She explained to PIX11 how her court system works, with 56 Family Court judges handling 250,000 filings every year.

Eleven additional elected civil court judges generally get assigned to two-year stints with Family Court to assist with the load of cases.

Fifty percent of the filings in Family Court involve child support and paternity matters. There are about 20 percent concern child abuse and neglect, along with juvenile delinquency cases. Another 30 percent of filings focus on custody and visitation matters.

“Year to date, there have been approximately 7,000 child protective filings,” Judge Ruiz told PIX11. These filings can relate to requests that a family be supervised.

“Most of the cases don’t seek removal of a child,” Judge Ruiz said. The judge told PIX11 about 20 to 25 percent of the 7,000 child protective filings request a child be removed from a household.

Michael Discioarro, an attorney who represents many families who find themselves battling ACS complaints, said “to blame the judges is absurd.”

Discioarro made claims that many complaints to ACS are called in by vindictive people. He also believes that caseworkers make decisions to justify the agency’s massive, $2.9 billion budget.

“And at the end of the year, you say ‘Look at all the families we helped,’” Disciorarro said sarcastically.

In the wake of Zymere Perkins’ death, Mayor Bill de Blasio and ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrion vowed to hold ACS personnel who failed the child accountable.

Multiple caseworkers and supervisors, including an associate ACS commissioner, were suspended without pay, as the investigation into what happened with Zymere continues.

Regarding Family Court, Judge Ruiz said “The public should understand the Family Court consists of very committed people; this is really hard work.”

The system is trying to utilize technology to make the cases move faster. “Queens is fully digital at this time,” Judge Ruiz told PIX11.

But the child welfare system remains a system about people, and Alison, the preventive caseworker, thinks court personnel would benefit from seeing what’s happening inside households around the city.

“They’re not in the homes,” Alison said. “They’re not going into the homes and seeing what we are seeing.”