The Protectors

In the child abuse trenches with a Dade County HRS protective investigator

A list of childhood abuses hangs on the glass partition in the tiny cubicle used by Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) protective investigator Lulus McQueen. It serves, in some ways, as a stark reminder of the cruelties that he may uncover each day on the job. The list is meant to provide coded categories that will be used in confidential abuse reports, but it also reveals the astonishing range of harm that can be inflicted on children in Miami. Physical injuries start with "bruises/welts" and "burns/scalds," escalate through "brain or spinal cord damage" and "suffocation/drowning," and end, finally, with "death due to abuse/neglect." The list also includes separate categories for different forms of sexual battery, substance abuse, neglect, and abandonment. About 900 such abuse and neglect allegations are routed each month to Dade County HRS's Children and Families Program through a central hotline (1-800-96ABUSE) located in Tallahassee. It is up to people such as the Bahamian-born McQueen to find out as quickly as possible if the accusations are true -- and, if needed, to do whatever's necessary to protect the children from any further harm.

HRS protective investigators even are required at times to make life-and-death decisions, and if a child somehow remains in a dangerous home, the results can be fatal. In 1993, for instance, a Dade protective investigator wasn't able to confirm a report that a four-year-old boy almost was drowned by his parents. A few months later, the child was beaten to death by the mother's live-in boyfriend. Being a protective investigator, or P.I., then, entails enormous responsibility. Not only that, but every time Lulus McQueen goes out into the inner-city neighborhoods of Miami to deal with the cases assigned to him, he faces a special challenge: How will he maneuver his way through a minefield of conflicting stories, divided families, and bureaucratic snafus to help children in need? And these days McQueen and the 90 other Dade P.I.'s are doing their work in a particularly unfriendly political environment: Republican legislators in Tallahassee have denounced the department for mismanagement (Miami State Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart brands it "the worst-run state agency in the country") and voted out Jim Towey, the mentor of HRS District 11 administrator Anita Bock, as chief of the agency.

For her part, Bock, whose bailiwick includes Dade and Monroe counties, concedes "it is a mismanaged agency," but sharply improved. For instance Bock says that when she started at Dade HRS in 1992, the protective investigations division was "an unqualified disaster.... There was just chaos in this area." But she argues that tighter management controls and a more accurate computer system have strengthened a work force that is still underpaid and inadequately trained. She also contends that her district has been hamstrung by the legislature's budget cuts and its refusal to grant her the financial flexibility she wants to upgrade training and salaries. The deeper problem, she insists, is "this community and Florida at large are not prepared to take care of their children and the elderly."

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The controversy over HRS is just a faint undercurrent on a recent Friday morning in May when Lulus McQueen leaves his run-down Little Havana office on his first case of the day. McQueen, an affable, casually dressed 43-year-old man with a slight paunch, isn't thinking about politics, but rather about the alleged sexual abuse of a three-year-old child -- and the travails of HRS investigators. It's a hot day, and the prospect of driving around in his own 1988 Audi with a broken air conditioner, a hand-me-down from his brother, seems especially unappealing. (HRS provides no official agency cars for investigators.) Given his base salary of $22,000, McQueen shrugs, "I can't afford to fix it now." But despite his paltry pay, he at least remains idealistic: "You don't come here to make money. You're here to save lives and help families."

That's what he's trying to do as he heads to Overtown to pursue an investigation he started the day before. (To protect the confidentiality of families and children, names have been changed in all cases and certain details have been altered or disguised.) Each case, after being approved by Tallahassee for further investigation, is tagged as either "immediate" or "24-hour" by the central abuse registry, and although this case didn't require his instant attention, McQueen chose to start in on it right away: "I wanted to make sure that the child isn't in any danger." Investigators are the firemen of family turmoil, and speed is usually essential.

But in the murky arena of sexual abuse, the truth often proves elusive. Yesterday, McQueen managed to speak to the grandmother of the alleged victim and to the child himself, who was taken by police to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center (RTC) for an exam. (As is often the case, the child's mother phoned the police, who in turn notified the HRS hotline.)

The child told a story about his father -- who lives apart from his mother -- touching his "pee-pee" and putting the father's "pee-pee" in the son's "butt." Today, when McQueen speaks to the boy's mother, she tells him that while bathing her son, "I saw what looked like come in his behind."

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