The Protectors

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

McQueen learns from the HRS file he carries with him that the mother has at least two prior complaints lodged against her, including one for giving birth to a boy last September who tested positive for marijuana. He also can see that she's been listed as receiving some sort of counseling services, but clearly something went wrong. "This is the last time they're going to dump this one," he asserts. "Somebody's not doing what they're supposed to do." He wants to reach the worker who tracked the family for HRS's protective services division -- which offers long-term monitoring -- but he doesn't have time to locate the worker before getting to the house.

"I need to know what was done," he complains, "but I'm going in there totally cold."

As he enters a cramped, sweltering two-bedroom apartment, he finds a black woman in a housedress staring blankly at him while cradling her three-year-old daughter. A smiling nine-month-old boy plays in his little walker, unaware of the trouble ahead, while Barbara's teenage daughter looks on fearfully. McQueen tries to ask the mother if she indeed left her youngest daughter at home alone, but the 35-year-old mother has trouble understanding the question. So he turns to Joan for the answer. She glances over at the mother to see what she should say before admitting, "She [the baby girl] was home asleep with the flu, and we didn't want to wake her."

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McQueen tries to make the mother understand that she shouldn't leave the child alone at that age. The daughter nervously interrupts, "I hope you're not going to take her away from Mom." Joan is the only member of the family who understands what may be at stake, and she stares at McQueen warily, clutching her hands together.

McQueen evades the girl's plea for now, as he continues to quiz the mother about the help she's supposed to receive and the way she cares for the kids. Her answers are halting and confused, all about the daddies that don't come to visit and the food stamps she doesn't get and the drug-treatment appointments she's missed.

Suddenly, in a voice stripped of every emotion except weariness, the mother asks, "Are you going to take all three children from me?"

"Do you want us to take them?" McQueen says.
"The oldest one ain't doing me right...I have seizures...yeah, take all three of them," she announces, as if they were pieces of furniture she was ready to discard. "Take 'em with you all today."

Everything is changing for Barbara's family now, but McQueen needs to fulfill some official reporting requirements -- obtaining all the children's names and social security numbers from papers the mother provides -- before he takes any further action. The teenager begins weeping softly. The mother looks at her coldly: "Don't start crying. I don't care."

McQueen stands up and tries to reach the family's protective service worker on his cellular phone, but since it's about 4 p.m., the phone has gone dead again. "Like clockwork," he says, borrowing the family's phone. He reaches the worker's supervisor and outlines the neglect charge and the current crisis in a cool professional manner while the family looks on: "She wants to give the children up. She suffers from seizures and other problems, and it's too much for her." It's clear that the supervisor doesn't fully understand the urgency of the situation, because McQueen shouts, in response to a query about the neglect allegation, "Yes, it's founded!" When he hangs up he expects that the protective services worker will be contacted and arrange to take the children to a shelter or drop them with relatives.

Meanwhile, the mother orders the daughter to start packing. The girl heads into her room, emptying the clothing from her drawers into green garbage bags the mother hands her. Barbara casually removes photographs of the children from picture frames and throws them on top of a pile of clothing and baby paraphernalia she's shoved next to the door.

After a while, McQueen calls back the supervisor, who tells him that she'll try to beep the protective services worker. Eventually he realizes that the worker isn't going to show up, and he'll have to make arrangements for the children himself. He gets from Joan the phone numbers of Barbara's mother and two sisters, trying to find someone willing to take the kids right now. "If nobody's willing to take the children, I have to put them in a shelter," he tells one sister. Ultimately he convinces the mother and Barbara's other sister to come over.

In the course of speaking to the relatives, he discovers that they've made several previous efforts to gain custody of the children, but were rebuffed by the court -- with the approval of HRS. "This time I'm going to file a detention petition, and I'll do it the right way once and for all," he tells Barbara's mother over the phone.

As the teenager stomps angrily around the house packing up the children's belongings, she stops for a moment to ask McQueen, "Can I take my games?" With a smile, McQueen answers, "I believe so."

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