De Blasio Mayoral Run Shaped by Child-Abuse Case That Shook NYCHenry Goldman and Esmé E. Deprez
Bill de Blasio was a New York City councilman responsible for overseeing child welfare when the story of a 7-year-old girl beaten, starved and tortured by her parents in Brooklyn exploded in the headlines.
The 2006 killing of Nixzmary Brown, whose body was found inside what a judge described as a “house of horrors,” transfixed the city as details emerged of missed danger signs. The emaciated girl missed 46 school days, and her stepfather denied an investigator access to her house. A caseworker canceled a visit the night she died, only to appear the next morning as police carted her body to the morgue.
“As a tale of what government was not doing well, it was pretty sharp,” de Blasio, 52, the front-runner in the race for mayor, said in a telephone interview. “The sense that she could have been saved, not once but many times, left everyone with a pained and empty feeling, and I certainly felt it.”
For de Blasio, a Democrat who faces Republican Joseph Lhota, 58, in the Nov. 5 election, the case underscored his contempt for the harm government can inflict when it fails to act and his belief that aggressive intervention can improve the lives of the most vulnerable. As head of the council’s General Welfare Committee, he investigated the handling of the Nixzmary Brown case and others where the city failed to protect children.
“I saw my role as being a critical voice, a voice demanding more change rather than less,” de Blasio said.
Interviews with a dozen colleagues, aides, city officials and child advocates, along with a review of the transcript of the council hearing de Blasio led three weeks after Nixzmary’s death, shows the candidate as collaborative and not confrontational. The portrait provides insight to the governing style of the man most likely to become chief executive of a city of 8.3 million with a $70 billion budget and 300,000 employees.
“I can’t remember Bill ever arguing with anyone,” said Peter Vallone Jr., a Queens Democrat who served on the city council with de Blasio from 2002 to 2009. “He wasn’t the kind of councilman to walk into a committee hearing, throw a bomb at a city official to get a quote in the paper or make the six o’clock news, and then leave the room.”
Even as de Blasio praised Mayor Michael Bloomberg for committing more money to reduce worker caseloads and improve risk assessment and coordination among officials, police and the public, he continued calling for improvements at the agency responsible for child welfare, the Administration for Children’s Services. In the 15 months after Nixzmary Brown died, he held four hearings probing the city’s effectiveness in preventing child abuse and neglect.
“He stayed on the issues long after the media had turned away,” said John Mattingly, the former commissioner of the ACS, who took the brunt of criticism. “In the end, he wound up helping us.”
De Blasio also wasn’t the type to hold a grudge, said Alan J. Gerson and Michael McMahon, two former councilmen who served with de Blasio. In 2006, they both backed Christine Quinn for speaker over him in a contentious intraparty battle.
“That did not in any way affect or undercut our working relationship,” Gerson said.
Following her victory, Quinn reappointed de Blasio as chairman of the welfare committee. One of his first acts that year was to convene a hearing on the Nixzmary Brown case, with Mattingly as his main witness.
“While other council members used the hearing to express anger and ask me questions like, ‘How could you allow this to happen?’ de Blasio asked fair questions: ‘What happened? Why? And what are you going to do to stop it from happening again?” said Mattingly, who since 2011 has been a senior policy analyst at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit that supports programs for at-risk children.
The two first met shortly after Mattingly became commissioner in 2004, when the councilman visited his office and recounted a fatal child-abuse case inside a homeless shelter. De Blasio’s information led Mattingly to create a child-welfare unit inside the city’s Department of Homeless Services to identify at-risk children in shelters, he said.
“He knows when to pick a fight and when to work together,” said council member Jessica Lappin, who served on de Blasio’s committee.
In 2009, after eight years on the council, de Blasio was elected public advocate, a watchdog post created in 1993. His interest in child welfare continued and led to his participation in a citywide response to yet another crisis in 2010, when a 4-year-old girl died of neglect -- even after she had been seen by doctors at a city hospital.
With a staff of more than 30 and a budget of $2.25 million, de Blasio also developed a list of the city’s “worst landlords;” criticized corporate political spending following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that permitted unlimited campaign contributions; and fought against the proposed elimination of free subway and bus transportation for public-school students.
“The public advocate has to be a strong check and balance on the mayor, by definition, has to be a watchdog on the mayoralty and the city government, and should be activist in pushing government to serve people more effectively, and willing to be contentious when the government isn’t doing that,” de Blasio said last week on WNYC radio.
Some critics say de Blasio didn’t do enough of that. Mark Green and Norman Siegel, who both lost to de Blasio for the post, say his comparatively small budget and lack of power is no excuse for not doing more.
“What’s most troubling is his inability to maximize the potential of the office and with some people calling for it to be eliminated, he contributed to the office having no identity other than being a stepping stone for higher office,” said Siegel, who nonetheless said he supports de Blasio for mayor.
Child advocates disagree, pointing to de Blasio’s actions after Marchella Pierce, 4, died in 2010 weighing only 18 pounds (8.2 kilograms). ACS caseworkers and a private company under contract with the city had failed to check on her care in the hands of a drug-addicted mother.
They say De Blasio’s participation in an investigative task force of doctors, social workers, child advocates and city officials was crucial in persuading the panel to recommend annual funding for abuse and neglect prevention, which provided more predictable and consistent financing for such programs.
“He pushed and wouldn’t budge,” said Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children, who participated in the task force. “When the mayor agreed, it was a major victory.”
Bloomberg, 71, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is legally barred from seeking a fourth term and will complete 12 years in office Dec. 31. Linda Gibbs, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for health and human services, declined requests to be interviewed about de Blasio.
Nixzmary’s mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, is serving as long as 36 years in prison for manslaughter, assault and other charges. Her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, who struck the fatal blow, was sentenced to as much as 29 years.
That and other child-abuse cases show government services can be improved without heavy spending, de Blasio said.
“What we learned was that a lot of the most important solutions are not about money: They’re about getting the public involved; they’re about getting the agencies to understand their responsibilities,” he said.