The Protectors

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

The boy is strikingly quiet and passive, saying only that he has been sick for four days. At the hospital emergency room, when a nurse finally sees the boy, McQueen finds he can't answer the nurse's questions about whether the child has allergies or major health problems. It's information the hospital needs in order for the boy to avoid any potential side effects from treatments. McQueen looks through the sketchy background report he was given and admits, "I don't know anything about this child." The answer points up just how vulnerable and isolated the child -- sitting silently next to the nurse's desk -- really is.

While waiting, the boy says he doesn't want to go back to the shelter because "they beat me." He's vague and unclear about who does the alleged beating. ("I can't blame him for not wanting to go back to the shelter," McQueen says later, but he claims he doesn't have enough solid information to pursue an abuse investigation -- or even phone in to the hotline -- regarding one of HRS's own shelters. Under state law, HRS investigators and others who deal with children are required to report suspected child abuse, but they're given discretion to make judgments about what cases should be reported.) It takes a few more hours before the doctors tell them -- after making several tests -- that the boy just has a bad cold.

It is close to 9:30 p.m. when McQueen and the child leave the hospital. Before he departs, however, McQueen calls his wife to say, as he often does, that he'll be late.

"Why are you doing this job?" she asks him angrily.
"It's because of the kids," he tells her.
"What about our kid?" she shoots back.

Sometimes when an abuse investigator such as McQueen is called in to explore a new allegation, HRS already has been involved, but it is left to the P.I. to try to patch up again the shredded fabric of family life. It's not easy to pinpoint blame for the failures: Everything from the agency's periodic inability to provide thorough family monitoring to the erratic lives and schedules of the impoverished parents themselves can play a part. Bock says part of the fault comes from a system that passes along supervision of a family from worker to worker, division to division. The result is that some families end up falling through the cracks of HRS services. That appears to be what's happened in McQueen's first new case of the next week, when he heads out on Monday morning to another slum neighborhood to check out a report that a young mother's child has been spotted with bruises on his body.

When McQueen gets to the ramshackle house, he finds a pregnant, lethargic black woman surrounded by four preschoolers scampering around on a dirty gray carpet. Like almost all the mothers he visits, this woman is on welfare. In the next room, the boy who is supposed to have been bruised is sleeping. When McQueen goes in to examine him, he doesn't find any bruises, but he does learn that this twenty-year-old mother is overwhelmed by all of her kids. And in the course of denying that she mistreats her children, she also tells him about another HRS worker who promised to help her get daycare but never did.

"If the others didn't do that, then I will," he vows.
She also tells him about the gas and hot water that have been turned off, the rats in the home, the ceiling that's peeling off. "You need help like yesterday," he tells her. (In the next few days he lines up a nearby HRS-funded day-care center for her, as well as counseling about birth control and parenting; he also contacts the landlord about restoring the hot water and gas.)

(The lack of HRS follow-through uncovered by McQueen in this case underscores why in recent years the agency has developed a two-pronged approach to abuse investigations. People such as McQueen are known as a "triage" investigators, and their work subsequently is reinforced and double-checked by "followup" investigators. Although McQueen seems unusually thorough in his work, many other triage investigators are not. "They go out in a hurry and lay the groundwork, and I make sure they didn't make any mistakes," explains Cyprion Onuoha, a jovial Nigerian who has been working as an investigator for five years. "There are so many things left undone by the triage worker.")

On the way back to his office after his visit to the harried pregnant mother, McQueen is disturbed by the implications of what he's just seen, noting "The family has fallen apart in the black community."

The dissolution of the black family has reached its virtual endpoint in the home he's assigned to visit next -- despite previous HRS efforts to keep the family together. A three-year-old girl was left home alone in the morning when her mildly retarded mother, Barbara, went with her fourteen-year-old daughter Joan to pick up a check from the Association for Retarded Citizens, the agency that handles her finances.

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