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The violent death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown raised an age-old question: If neighbors and family suspected the abuse, why didn’t anyone report it sooner?

The answer, according to child welfare advocates, lies in how low-income communities of color often perceive the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

“During the 1990’s, ACS workers almost became synonymous with the police department,” said John Courtney, co-director of the Partnership for Family Supports and Justice, a nonprofit collaboration administered by the Fund for Social Change. Though ACS policy has shifted dramatically since then, he added, those perceptions are hard to shake. “Community members are extremely reluctant [to report abuse] because in most instances it has led to the removal of children and the trauma and pain that accompanies it.”

While children like Brown and her siblings are no doubt better off in foster care, advocates say, many others can safely remain at home as long as their parents have extra help. That’s the premise behind “Bridge Builders,” a pilot project launched by Courtney and his colleague, David Tobis, in 2003.

Based in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, which has one of the highest foster care placement rates in the city, the program is staffed largely with local residents. Its office, on the corner of Ogden Avenue and 164th Street, is known casually as “the storefront.” With glass on two sides, passersby can’t help but peer in—and that’s part of the plan. By providing a safe and open space, staffers say, they are encouraging families to seek services and refer other parents in need.

“We’re shifting the responsibility of protecting the child from a big institution to the community,” said project director Francis Ayuso, who is also an employee of ACS, a partner in the program. “The first line of defense is the neighborhood, the tenant association, the grocery store. They’re the first people to know that a family is in trouble.”

On a recent Thursday afternoon, visitors poured through the door, meeting with different members of the team. Onsite workers offer access to housing, employment, education and counseling, and can also refer parents to Bronx Defenders or Legal Services of New York. Though it’s difficult to draw a causal link, abuse/neglect reports in the area had dropped by 25 percent two years into the program, and foster care placements were down 16 percent.

Wanda Smith, 45, came to Bridge Builders after a brush with ACS. Her daughter had gone to school crying after a spanking, she said, and a concerned teacher called the agency. Though Smith’s case didn’t necessitate a removal, it introduced her to Bridge Builders, where she signed up for parenting skills and advocacy training. Smith said she hasn’t hit her children since, and now volunteers with the program, handing out flyers and recruiting other parents. Though one neighbor recently bristled at the interference, Smith isn’t easily deterred. “Once you come in, you do feel at home,” she said, “but you have to come in first.”

Yet the program doesn’t rely entirely on parents walking though the door. It also works onsite in three local elementary schools: PS 11, PS 126 and PS 73. One day each week, Bridge Builders staff members are stationed in each location to help spot family problems before they become full-blown crises, and thus reduce the number of calls to ACS from the schools. But that doesn’t mean overlooking abuse, explained former coordinator Meredith Levine. “We adhere to the same standards as any other mandated reporter,” she said, referring to those required by law to report dangerous homes. Any sign of physical harm must be called in.

Still, she said, some situations require more digging. In one instance, a guidance counselor was concerned about a boy who was acting out aggressively in class. She referred the case to Levine, who spoke with the boy’s mother and discovered that she was a victim of domestic violence and a recent immigrant, unaware of her rights. Levine was able to secure counseling for both mother and son. Bridge Builders also meets regularly with the attendance monitor in each school. If Nixzmary Brown’s school had a similar program, noted Levine, her long stretch of absences might have been noticed sooner.

Ironically, some staff members fear that Brown’s death could turn back the clock on the pro-family reforms that helped inspire their program. “ACS has come a long way,” said Rosa Rosado, assistant director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a Bridge Builders partner. “We just don’t want to see that go backwards.”

Anne Williams-Isom, ACS’ associate commissioner for community affairs doesn’t envision that happening. In fact, she said, the agency is teaming up with Bridge Builders to test a new procedure called Placement Decision Meetings (PDM), emergency conferences held right before a child is placed in foster care to look for possible alternatives.

Williams-Isom balks at the suggestion that such initiatives might be seen as too soft in the wake of recent child fatalities. “It’s about making a good decision,” she said. “The only way we get to the right decision is to know all the factors. Everyone has a piece of that puzzle.”

–Cassi Feldman