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Retired Cops Now Swell Ranks of Child Welfare System

By Cindy Rodriguez

 Retired NYPD detective Chris Potenza is now works for ACS. (Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)

January 25, 2008

The murder trial of the man accused of brutally beating his 7-year old step-daughter, Nixzmary Brown, is in its second week. Two years ago, the child’s death shook the city and the child welfare system. Officials announced a series of reforms including the hiring of retired police detectives. These law enforcement professionals are supposed to help caseworkers be better investigators. WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez visited one field office to see how this merging of professions is going:

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REPORTER: Chris Potenza’s corner desk is small and neat. A fan blows behind him. Caseworkers sit at open desks across the office. 110 of them work here. Each likely juggling about a dozen cases of suspected abuse and neglect.

PHONE RINGS POTENZA ANSWERS ACS

REPORTER: At 42 years old, he is young to be called a retiree. But he joined the NYPD shortly after high school. He began his career patrolling the streets of Crown Heights as a plain clothes cop and spent the last 10 years investigating thousands of child abuse cases as part of the NYPD’s Special Victim’s Unit.

POTENZA: What happened was I was getting ready to retire. It was after the Nixzmary Brown case and I seen on the news Mayor Bloomberg wants to hire retired detectives to assist in..child services…I says I couldn’t ask for a better fit for me after I retire with my background.

REPORTER: Several of his old colleagues have joined him at ACS. In fact, his old boss who headed the Special Victims unit is now his new boss here.

POTENZA /CASEWORKER: Hi how you doin…You have something on your desk for me right. Yes.

REPORTER: A large part of Potenza’s work involves running reports taken from databases that caseworkers don’t have access to or just don’t know how to access:

POTENZA /CASEWORKER: This is it. Is this me? Yeah this is me right? Oh yeah this is me. I left you a message on your phone. Yeah this is the line this is it. Thanks Chris alright have a good day.

REPORTER: The report Potenza is passing along here is a common one and comes from the NYPD. It lists the occurrences of domestic violence incidents at a home:

POTENZA: It used to take them weeks to get it sometimes a month sometimes they’d have to put in for it several times because it got lost when it got faxed from the Police Department.

REPORTER: Potenza also has access to a national database often used to try track people down, a Department of Motor Vehicles database and a court system database to help determine whether someone in a home has a criminal history.

REPORTER: For law enforcement professionals such as Kim Berger from the city’s Department of Investigation, database searches are a basic AND NECESSARY part of investigative work.

BERGER: You would want to know do they have a criminal record that involves violence or weapons possession. Is there substance abuse issues. You know going in and confronting someone abusing drugs or alcohol can be extremely explosive.

REPORTER: Berger headed a team of investigators that examined 11 child deaths and one near death where ACS was involved. The report lays out in disturbing detail how sloppy casework and high caseloads lead to children living and eventually dying inside homes that were often filthy, violent and dangerous. Berger says caseworkers too readily accepted a parent’s denial by failing to test and probe their explanations. Her report recommends ACS hire 100 Investigative Consultants to try to teach caseworkers to be better detectives:

BERGER: Giving the caseworkers advice in terms of tracking parents down. Techniques for actually getting into a home where a parent maybe doesn’t want to allow a caseworker into the home. I think the consultants can offer a lot of advice and guidance.

REPORTER: It’s long been considered taboo to mix law enforcement and child welfare because of concerns about criminalizing families who are typically poor and in desperate need of social services.

REPORTER: But surprisingly some experts partial to a softer ACS approach are not ready to denounce these 41 new Investigative Consultants. As long as they don’t take resources from social services or scare families away. Andrew White heads the center for New York City Affairs.

WHITE: It’s gotta be a two way street…those former detectives are going to have to learn a whole lot about social work…They’re going to have to learn to relate to people in the community in a way that’s different from the way they related when they were police.

REPORTER: Back in Brooklyn, Chris Potenza sits in his car outside his Brooklyn field office and waits for a caseworker to meet him:

REPORTER: Mitchelle Jean Vier is 26 years old and wears a short red hooded jacket.

POTENZA: Here’s the arrest report which I will give you a copy afterwards. You see the address that she used. Next page…right…here it is

REPORTER: Potenza is helping her locate a 20 year old mom and her 9 month old infant. An anonymous report came to ACS about three months ago accusing her of physical abuse and of not having a home for the child. Jean Vier found no evidence of abuse, but says the young mom is without a permanent place to live:

JEAN VIER: My main focus was finding her shelter. You know and unfortunately, she was found ineligible by the Department of Homeless Services twice.

REPORTER: Jean Vier says DHS offered to send them to Puerto Rico to live with a relative but the young mom refused saying she had another place to stay:

JEAN VIER: I’m disappointed that they didn’t ask where’s this new home of yours. They should’ve gotten that information to give to me but they didn’t you know so…

REPORTER: Jean Vier describes the young mom as cooperative and loving to her child. Except now she’s disappeared and the caseworker must find her before closing the case:

REPORTER: The two arrive at the home of the girl’s sister. Potenza tells the young caseworker to ring the bell of a neighbor not the person she’s looking for. Better yet, he says, walk in, if the door is open:

POTENZA: This way it gives people less time to start hiding, look outside to see who is out there or you know prepare trying to catch em by surprise.

REPORTER: No one is answering the bell though

POTENZA: Sometimes it takes a while to get in to a house. You can’t just give up. While you knocking I’m taking down the names of the people who live in the home.

REPORTER: Eventually a woman holding a pit bull in her arms opens the door. Unleashed dogs are another danger caseworkers often face. Jean Vier panics when the owner sets this one on the floor.

REPORTER: Once the dog is restrained, the woman at the front door explains that the family in question went on vacation to Puerto Rico.

POTENZA/WOMAN: Nobody’s in there now are you sure? No. I’m positive cuz my husband is real good friends with them…. Basically, her sister has a baby and we’re just trying to make sure the baby is ok.

REPORTER: Potenza insists on checking for himself:

POTENZA: I don’t like to take the word for granted…sometimes when I come up the stairs there’s a space under the door…and you can look and see if there’s lights on. If there’s movement in the apartment..

REPORTER: Noone answers and the two are satisfied the family is gone. A pile of mail corroborates the neighbor’s story:

POTENZA: We’ll go now to another relatives house and see if we can get lucky there. Hopefully there’s no dogs.

REPORTER: The job of monitoring troubled families is a daunting one. Most caseworkers go out alone and without the help of a trained detective. Jean Vier says last night she was out ‘til 10 investigating a mother who spent much of her life in foster care and was then raped by her adoptive father:

REPORTER: It’s the second stop.

POTENZA: He doesn’t live here anymore…the brother…the storeowner told us that he moved out.

REPORTER: Jean Vier says normally at this point, she would stop looking for the day and TRY again tomorrow. A pile of paperwork awaits her at the office:

POTENZA: But the only problem is..word travels fast so a lot of times if you don’t get where you gotta get in a pretty quick amount of time they are outta that location and on to their next place.

REPORTER: At the next location, the two make progress. An aunt tells them mother and daughter sleep at her apartment but spend their days with a cousin nearby. Jean Vier says the aunt’s apartment is clean, and there’s a crib and food for the baby. Now they head to the cousin - a few blocks away. And 15 minutes later, they emerge with satisfaction:

POTENZA / JEAN VIER: Much better, whoa…mission accomplished. Yeah mission accomplished. Wow. This is so cool. She’s there… This is her cousin’s house so everybody lives in the community. She welcomed me in and said she’s just waiting for her boyfriend to give her some money to rent a room.

REPORTER: They say the baby is plump and healthy.

POTENZA / JEAN VIER: Very friendly baby. She was clean. She was wearing designer clothes…fubu…

REPORTER: The future for the small family is LIKELY to be full of hardship. Jean Vier says the child’s father is in a rehab program. The young mom still has no permanent home, no job, no high school diploma and no GED. Jean Vier says the situation is far from optimum but ACS cannot hang on to families forever and case is now closed. For wnyc, I’m Cindy Rodriguez



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