Kerry O’Connell, the Assistant District Attorney who gained a conviction Jan. 15 of Rysheim Smith for the murder of a 6-year-old boy 40 months ago, struck the right balance in her summation to a Manhattan jury in assessing blame.

“The child-welfare agency didn’t protect Zymere Perkins, even though they were in the best position to do that,” she said of the child who was repeatedly battered by Mr. Smith, and sometimes by his own mother. “But at the end of the day, Geraldine Perkins and Rysheim Smith are the only people criminally responsible for Zymere’s death.”

The reality is, though, that the Administration for Children’s Services exists because there will always be weak people like Ms. Perkins and brutish ones like Mr. Smith. It is why, while in many cases it is better to keep a family intact, in some it is imperative to get the child out of the poisoned surroundings in which Zymere spent much of his life. There were neighbors who made an issue of his mistreatment, and several school employees notified ACS about signs of abuse, including the little boy’s own admission that the couple sometimes beat him.

Yet agency workers repeatedly failed to take decisive action that might have saved him. ACS has changed for the better since then. That doesn’t mean it can afford to forget that its primary responsibility is to the child, not others in his life who either scare workers or draw their sympathy.

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