The Protectors

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

After talking a while with the mother, McQueen continues to sort things out in his mind on the trip back to the office. "I feel badly for the mother and the child, but I've got to keep my focus on how to prove what actually happened," he points out. Later today, after his interview with the mother, he learns from the detective on the case that the RTC examination found no evidence of penetration or sexual abuse. (No arrests are made, and McQueen, after concluding that the sexual allegation was unfounded, refers the mother a few days later to counseling to help her cope with the stresses of raising her child.) McQueen still has no firm idea of what really happened, but he doesn't have time to dwell on it. He's got other cases to pursue.

McQueen isn't frustrated by the large portion of unproven and unfounded cases he encounters. "If nothing happened, that's great," he says. "There's a sense of relief that nothing has taken place." Only about ten percent of the approximately 10,000 abuse reports handled by Dade HRS annually are definitively confirmed. At least 30 percent fall into a muddy category where something may have happened, but there's no way to prove it.

But if abuse allegations appear to be well-grounded and McQueen feels a child is in immediate danger, he has the authority to remove the child from a home and place him or her with relatives or in an HRS shelter, then seek court approval within 24 hours. In truth it is a power that is invoked only infrequently because of the state legislature's 1993 directive promoting "family preservation." The agency generally has sought to comply with this policy -- only eight percent of abuse reports lead to a child's removal from the home -- but even so, among the families that Lulus McQueen visits, the fear of having their kids snatched away by the government is a very real one.

Inside the decaying Liberty City apartment building, with unsupervised children playing outside near exposed wiring and amid broken windows, a mother is very nervous. Anna, a thin Hispanic woman in her early thirties, bustles about the apartment, smiling, tense, and deferential, even offering to fetch a drink for McQueen. She has been accused in the report he holds of abusing drugs and endangering her two children, a boy and a girl, and she has been the target of similar earlier complaints to HRS.

McQueen tries to put her at ease. "We want to see if we can help. We were called about some allegations, and I'm here to assist in any way I can," he explains, seated across from her with a notepad. In the last year and a half, HRS has sought to move away from a coplike approach in abuse investigations, and move toward what director Anita Bock calls a "social worker mode." Although McQueen has been a P.I. only for six months, he is well-suited to this new style because he has worked for years as a drug and alcohol counselor, first for a nonprofit agency, then for HRS, and later for the University of Miami. Despite his gentle style, he must ask the woman hard questions. In a matter-of-fact way, he glances down at his abuse report and begins reading aloud the allegations to her:

"Anna is abusing illicit drugs and it is likely affecting her ability to care for her children. She has sudden mood swings. She's talked of killing herself and her kids. She was so high on drugs she got in a car accident while one of the kids was inside." McQueen speaks softly, almost apologetically. "Sometimes these reports are true, sometimes they're not," he adds. (The identity of the person who reported Anna to HRS is kept secret from everyone except HRS officials, a procedure designed to encourage citizens to report abuse without fear of retaliation.)

Anna continues to smile while listening to the litany of complaints, doing her best to be charming. "I know why this report was called in," she finally says in a fast-talking, high-strung way. "I was late picking up my daughter from daycare, and I was turning the corner when this car ran into me." Her son was in the car at the time. However, her faaade of good cheer crumbles for a moment when she realizes the gravity of the charges against her. "I don't believe this," she suddenly says, shaking her head.

McQueen nods understandingly, then goes over the allegations one by one. "Do you use drugs?" he asks.

"I got off drugs a year ago," she says, and when McQueen asks, she agrees to take a voluntary drug test, then goes on to deny or explain away all of the allegations. She's eager to prove that she's a good parent, and there's a certain desperation in her voice when she says, "You could look at my refrigerator and check to see there's no problem. That's what the lady who was here last time did."

McQueen declines, and asks Anna to take him over to both a grade school and a day-care center in the neighborhood so he can talk to her children. The first stop is the elementary school, where McQueen arranges to speak privately with the eight-year-old child in a conference room. The boy, in his Ninja Turtles T-shirt, obediently follows the P.I. inside. McQueen acts as friendly as he can, but even with his easygoing manner there's no disguising the difficulty of the questions he has to ask.

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