The Protectors

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

"Have you every seen your mommy using drugs?"
The boy shakes his head quietly.
"Does she beat you?" Again, the youngster shakes his head. Trying to gain his confidence, McQueen leans closer and asks, "Is there anything else you want to tell me? Is everything okay at this time?"

"Yes."
When McQueen emerges with the boy, Anna tells the P.I., "This is the third or fourth time, so he's used to it by now."

She then takes McQueen to a nearby day-care center, and when Anna's daughter espies her mother, she runs over happily. Accompanied by a day-care worker, McQueen goes into a small office with the four-year-old girl and tries to talk to her. The girl sits on a tiny chair, looking overwhelmed by the adults surrounding her. "You're a pretty little girl," McQueen says reassuringly. But when he asks her, "Do you know what drugs are?" and she shakes her head, he realizes this interview won't produce anything useful. The child leaves the room to rejoin her mother, and Anna is allowed to return home.

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McQueen turns his attention to the day-care instructor, seeking to get her impressions. She praises Anna for being affectionate with her children, but also notes that she's looked high on drugs at times. "When that stuff starts taking over, I get scared for her and the children," the woman says.

Finally, McQueen says to the day-care worker, "I have mixed feelings about this and I will sort it out."

It's a tricky case for McQueen, because he has to balance the obvious affection between the mother and her children with the possibility that her risky behavior could endanger their lives. (When he catches up with Anna on another visit a few days later, he convinces her to enter a drug treatment program, even though there's no concrete evidence that she's using drugs. "If there's another report on her and she didn't follow through on the drug program, we'll have to take action," he says later.)

Today, however, on the way back to the office in the late afternoon after his visit to the day-care center, he's sure of only one thing regarding this family: "You never want to put a child in a shelter." In McQueen's view, shelters -- temporary way stations for children until permanent homes can be found or they're returned to their parents -- don't offer the warm, loving attention children need. If children have to be removed from a home, it's far better to place them with other relatives than in a shelter, he believes, a view shared in part by Dade HRS administrators. There are eighteen child shelters in Dade County, with a total of 90 beds, all secretly located in residential neighborhoods so abusive relatives can't find them.

His next stop, it turns out, is just such a shelter. While he is returning to the office, he gets an urgent beeper message to call his supervisor, who tells him over a cellular phone that he has to pick up a sick child at a shelter in Cutler Ridge and take him to a hospital. Before McQueen can get any further information, the battery in the early-model cellular phone goes dead. It happens every day about this time.

The agency's deployment of personnel doesn't seem to work much better than its high-tech equipment. An HRS office in South Dade is far closer to the Cutler Ridge shelter than McQueen is at the moment, crawling along in rush-hour traffic late on a Friday afternoon. And while McQueen, a seven-year veteran of the U.S. army, realizes that there are some orders one has to accept, this one irks him. "Am I the only HRS investigator working right now?" he asks rhetorically. "Nobody wants to be the one to be responsible." (Bock, when asked later about the P.I.'s sudden assignment, says, "It makes no sense to me." She blames everything from poor staff judgment to personnel shortages.)

Before driving to Cutler Ridge, McQueen returns to the office to learn more details about the case, then heads out again about 4:30 p.m. As the car moves slowly down South Dixie Highway, McQueen gripes, "Why in hell do I have to go to Southwest Dade to take a kid to a hospital? By the time I get there the kid could be dead." He's also on call after 5:00 p.m. for emergency investigations, and en route to Cutler Ridge he gets a beeper message urging him to call Dade's central child protection office at the Juvenile Justice Center on Northwest 27th Avenue. "I can only work on one case at a time," he says, choosing to ignore the message. The dispatcher will have to find somebody else.

When he arrives at the shelter, a ranch house in a middle-class neighborhood, he can't help but notice a truck parked outside piled high with garbage. "Jesus Christ!" he exclaims. "Children live here?" He adds bitingly, "The trash is enough to make a child sick." Inside the house, a dozen children, mostly black, from an infant in a crib to grade schoolers, loll about in a stupor of apathy. They sit around in a sparse, depressing living room; one wall has been decorated with cheerful Disney characters, incongruous amid the gloom. The Box cable channel blares rap videos in one corner, and lying on a small couch near the TV set is the sick child himself, a cold towel resting on his forehead. The child-care staffer on duty (they work in three eight-hour shifts) greets McQueen laconically and tells him the boy has a 104-degree temperature. She helps the child get up, hands McQueen a folder with some information on the seven-year-old, and ushers them out the door.

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