A bleak life, cut short at 4, where nothing went right

She withered in poverty in a home in Brooklyn where the authorities said she had been drugged and often bound to a toddler bed by her mother, having realised a bare thimble’s worth of living.

The horrid nature of Marchella Pierce’s death produced four arrests. This week, Charles J Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, is convening a grand jury to explore what he called “evidence of alleged systemic failures” in New York City’s child welfare agency, which had monitored the girl’s family.

An examination of Marchella’s bleak, fleeting life, drawn from interviews with relatives, neighbours and law-enforcement authorities, as well as from legal documents, shows that almost nothing went right for her. She entered the world prematurely with underdeveloped lungs.

When she was not in a hospital, she was being raised in the uproar of a helter-skelter, combative family struggling with drugs. And when she came under the watch of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services,  her well-being fell to caseworkers who, prosecutors say, essentially ignored the family.

Marchella’s household was brought to the agency’s attention in late 2009, yet for several months after that it appears no one there knew that the girl, hospitalised for most of her life, even existed.

After she was taken home from a nursing home, she was supposed to be looked after by not one but two sets of caseworkers, one set from the city and one from a private agency under contract to the city. Marchella’s mother, Carlotta Brett-Pierce, 31, is charged with murder, and her grandmother, Loretta Brett, 56, with manslaughter. Both are in jail awaiting trial. Damon Adams, 37, a Children’s Services caseworker, and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, 34, are charged with criminally negligent homicide.Loretta Brett and Carlotta Brett-Pierce were known as truculent people with fiery tempers. The police arrested Carlotta Brett-Pierce twice for criminal possession of marijuana and once for assault.

Marchella weighed 1 pound 4 ounces when she was born, prematurely, on April 3, 2006. A relative recalls thinking she was about the size of a one-litre Pepsi bottle. A twin sister, born first, died.

Rehabilitation centre

Marchella lived amid a swirl of doctors and nurses, shuffled among at least six health care facilities. To help her breathe, she had a tracheal tube, which required regular cleaning. In mid-2009, in final preparation for family life, she entered the Northwoods Rehabilitation and Extended Care Facility near Schenectady.

After 10 months at Northwoods, Marchella was discharged. A month after Marchella came home, Brett-Pierce took her to the hospital because the breathing tube had malfunctioned.

Doctors found the mother oddly insouciant, and she refused to be taught how to tend the tube. A call was made to the child abuse registry. Children’s Services dispatched an investigator to the home. For the next three months, case worker Adams  and the Child Development Support Corporation were supposed to be looking out for Marchella.

The private agency recommended in May that the Pierce case be closed, saying the home was stable and the children were safe.   When Brett-Pierce tested positive again for marijuana, Children’s Services decided to keep the case open.

In the Madison Street home, drugs remained a family pastime. In June, Loretta Brett was arrested for possession of marijuana; her four prior arrests included ones for robbery and assault.

Children’s Services, in its probe, said it was “questionable” whether Adams had ever seen the family.  Marchella kept losing weight. She had trouble with solids, and Brett-Pierce sometimes fed her liquid nutrition products. Her bones were visible through her flesh. When an ambulance arrived, Marchella was dead.

The girl had multiple bruises suggesting beatings.  Prosecutors said Brett-Pierce had starved Marchella, force-fed her antihistamines and beaten her with the video case and a belt.

The coroner ruled the death a homicide and ascribed it to child abuse syndrome involving drug poisoning, blunt impact injuries and malnutrition.

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