Children’s Services Commissioner Breaks Down Over Zymere Perkins’ ‘Unbearable’ Death

ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrion, center, cries during a City Council hearing on child abuse cases.

ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrion, center, cries during a City Council hearing on child abuse cases. Madina Toure/Observer

Tears overwhelmed Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión as she testified before the City Council on child abuse cases this morning, in a hearing that touched on the death of six-year-old Zymere Perkins last month—a homicide that Carrión called “her responsibility.”

The Council’s General Welfare Committee heard testimony this morning about child abuse cases and the various city oversight in the aftermath of Perkins’ death at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, despite five abuse allegations lodged against his mother. The agency has since put five child protective services staff on modified assignment and four others were suspended without pay for 30 days and demoted.

Carrión—who testified at the hearing along with Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Herminia Palacio and other members of the administration—grew emotional as she outlined the reforms the agency has since implemented.

“I have committed my entire career to helping children and families,” Carrión said. “Losing a child is unbearable and it’s my responsibility and one that I take very seriously.”

Those reforms include two new courses to help caseworkers to better understand how to identify cases where children are being abused, and a initiative developed with the Department of Education to trigger a school investigation when a student who has an open case with ACS is absent. The agency will also launch a public awareness campaign with the Health Department in the coming months.

Carrión also noted that $200 million was taken away from the agency in 2008. She also said that today, the agency has 1,864 child protective staff specialists, compared to 1,651 in January 2014. And they said the current caseload per caseworker is currently 9.2 per caseworker, compared to the national best practice standard of 12 and the state average of 15.

Public Advocate Letitia James has claimed Carrión has done a poor job as ACS commissioner, and suggested she should resign—but left it up to the mayor to decide her fate. And the two clashed when the mayor called her assessment of Carrión’s performance as “dead wrong.”

James shot back, “What’s ‘dead wrong’ is dead children.”

“Why has this agency been so resistant to sensible recommendations and why does it take the death of a child to bring about this reckoning?” James asked today, garnering applause from the nearly 100 members of the public in attendance.

Carrión promised to cooperate further with James. At one point, she noted that James’ pending lawsuit against the ACS hasn’t been settled yet and James responded, “We can discuss that after,” which was met with laughter from some in the audience.

“I always have welcomed the opportunity to work with you,” Carrión said. “We’ve known each other a long time. We share a commitment to children.”

During the hearing, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito noted that multiple agencies were engaged with the Perkins’ family but there were still missed opportunities. She also wondered whether there is a way to flag when a child who’s enrolled in the public education system does not re-enroll.

But she doesn’t think Carrión should go—she said she’s “never doubted” her commitment to improving children’s lives, and claimed that the commissioner is among those suffering after the Perkins tragedy.

“I am not one of those that will be doing so in light of this case,” Mark-Viverito said. “What I do ask is a genuine commitment on the part of this administration right to work with us as a Council that has oversight over these matters to make improvements so that we cannot allow children to fall through the cracks.”

Councilman Stephen Levin, chairman of the Council’s General Welfare Committee—which de Blasio himself headed for eight years when he was a Council member—questioned the administration’s claim that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance ask that they do not discuss the details of the case or interview any staffers until the office’s criminal investigation is complete. He noted that the mayor released preliminary findings 10 days after the death of four-year-old Myls Dobson in 2014.

“Under state law, ACS is required to complete an investigation within 60 days, and so I’m a little unclear what protocol’s being put into place now with regards to the district attorney and how that conforms with regular practice and state law,” Levin said.

Palacio said the administration has a written request from Vance’s office, but Carrión asserted that they cannot share it with the Council because they have a subpoena, who also said the city has until November 26 to complete its investigation under the state’s statute.

“The district attorney has reached out and made a specific request to the Administration for Children’s Services that we defer the interviewing part of our investigation until they have completed their investigation,” Palacio said.

Danny Frost, a spokesman for Vance’s office, said multiple agencies have expressed interest in conducting their own investigations but that the office asked that they refrain from conducting witness interviews.

“That is because multiple interviews by multiple authorities might impair our ability to conduct our criminal inquiry,” Frost said. “It is premature at this point for our office to comment further except to say that we will move as quickly as possible to complete our investigation, but at a pace and in a manner that ensures the quality of our investigation.”

De Blasio again affirmed his support for Carrión while appearing on his first “Mondays with the Mayor” segment on NY1.

“We learned some powerful and painful lessons here, and it’s a tragedy. And part of why I think Gladys was so emotional today was that she feels it very personally,” de Blasio said. “She takes full responsibility for her agency and that’s admirable. So I stand by her but it’s also very clear we’ve got a lot more work to do to keep improving that agency and protecting kids.”

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