Mayor Michael Bloomberg resoundingly swept to re-election by accentuating the positives. He spoke incessantly and triumphantly about the rise in test scores and the drop in crime during his first term. He prided himself on streamlining the city’s sprawling bureaucracies and getting a bloated municipal system shipshape.
But now the Mayor’s second term starts on the sourest of notes.
The death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown after a series of warnings to the Administration of Children Services that she was in grave danger, has become a lightning rod for public outrage. Mr. Bloomberg had long sought and won control of city agencies like the Department of Education, and recently named several close advisors to be deputy mayors, a sign that in his second term he will manage the city from the top down. But those demands for control come with a price: Now the Mayor finds some of the responsibility for the A.C.S. failure on his shoulders.
The Brooklyn girl’s death amounts to the first full-scale crisis that Mr. Bloomberg must face without the option of saying that the problem was out of his control, like the 2003 blackout, or inherited, like the budget problems in the aftermath of 9/11. What makes the current predicament so much more difficult for the Mayor is that the failure is being blamed on bureaucracies he claimed to have reformed.
“The Mayor’s responsibility is to make the changes, to be the manager, to hold the bureaucracy responsible and accountable and change it,” said Andy Breslau, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. “Part of this Mayor’s profile and reputation is as an über-manager. This is certainly an occasion when these skills will be tested.”
The Mayor, so recently untouchable in the euphoric haze of a landslide victory, suddenly finds himself caught in a tough spot. In the face of a media frenzy, he has to accept a certain amount of accountability, yet at the same time he does not want to seem too involved and complicit in the failure of one of his city agencies.
So far he has sent mixed signals about which strategy he intends to follow.
On Jan. 17, Mr. Bloomberg said that he would not attend the girl’s funeral, saying that his deputy Linda Gibbs, who oversees the city’s social-service agencies, including the A.C.S., was the “appropriate person” to go.
“I think my job is to work with the agencies and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure another terrible tragedy like this does not occur,” the Mayor told reporters. That decision, besides reflecting a certain amount of first-term tone deafness, especially after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s much-maligned statement that “I don’t go to cops’ funerals,” also suggested that Mr. Bloomberg was attempting to carefully extricate himself from an unpleasant situation.
But he also spoke of how the city had failed a child who showed up to school with black eyes and bruises over her body, echoing comments he made on Jan. 16.
“I want to ensure every New Yorker that a full investigation is under way to determine exactly how this breakdown occurred,” the Mayor said at an event commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem. “People will be held accountable for their actions in this tragedy.”
But how much, if any, of that responsibility should be attributed to the executive in charge of city government? His administration’s policy has been to prevent children from going into foster care, and to address issues at home so that children can stay with their families. That policy is widely seen as a success. According to statistics supplied by the A.C.S., the number of children in foster care has dropped from 25,471 in 2002 to 16,746 as of last September.
But the agency has been a cause for concern for every Mayor, because it takes only one case to go horribly wrong to provoke a public outcry.
Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who dealt with child services when he worked for the Office of the City Council President, said that instead of reforming or changing the agency, “they are constantly giving it new names.”
“Even in the best of conditions there are some cases that fall through the cracks—the people that take these jobs are not shining lights,” Mr. Stern said. “If the Mayor could find some way of paying a lot more money [for caseworker salaries] you’d have a lot better chance.”
That abuse cases fall through the cracks in a bureaucracy like the A.C.S. is no surprise. Across the Hudson River, horrifying stories of abuse and preventable deaths have led to demands for reform in the New Jersey Division for Youth Services. Yet even after several shakeups, the horror stories continue.
What makes the Nixzmary Brown case so difficult for Mr. Bloomberg is that these are the very cracks he prides himself on sealing up.
“He has to walk a fine line,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. “He’s got to substantively address concerns the case has raised in the public, and at the same time he has to protect the institution. He can’t be too draconian and demoralize an entire agency. Remember, this is not just an A.C.S. problem. It’s a school problem, a police problem. The web of responsibility here is enormous.”
Still, some political observers say that Nixzmary’s death, instead of being a call to arms for reform, reflects a blind spot during the Mayor’s watch in his first term.
“I haven’t seen evidence of the Mayor being hands-on,” said Jessica Marcus, a staff attorney with South Brooklyn Legal Services who represents parents in A.C.S. cases. “Even in terms of the commissioner, there are positive things happening at the top, but that doesn’t always trickle down to the front lines.”
But Mr. Bloomberg has been very careful not to betray any lack of confidence in Deputy Mayor Gibbs, a former second-in-command at the A.C.S. who earned a reputation as an innovative thinker able to cut through tangles of bureaucratic red tape, or A.C.S. Commissioner John Mattingly.
“John Mattingly, who I have enormous confidence in, is looking at the needs of his agency …. I think you’ll see a few changes in the next few days, but he’s trying to look at the agency from top to bottom,” Mr. Bloomberg told reporters on Jan. 17.
But as the brutal story of Nixzmary Brown’s murder lingers on front pages, along with photos of ghastly chairs where she was tied up and small open caskets where she lays at rest, the city’s outrage grows. Disciplinary action resulting from the case was expected on Jan. 18, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous.
Commissioner Mattingly said in an interview with WABC on Jan. 17: “I have to see to it that we do the job we’re supposed to do, and if people don’t do their basic job, they’re held accountable for it.”
One source close to the investigation said that disciplinary action could be taken against A.C.S. workers as soon as Wednesday, Jan. 19.
But some political commentators are wondering how much of that accountability falls on the Mayor and the upper reaches of his administration, and how much of the responsibility belongs to a bureaucracy that may be ungovernable.
Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for the A.C.S., said that there had been “an intensive review on the Nixzmary Brown case as we do on every fatality.” An accountability review panel is expected to release a detailed report of their findings in about two weeks.