The Protectors

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

The family's unraveling is happening so quickly, and the bizarre unreality of it becomes even greater shortly after Joan slumps on the floor and starts sobbing. The mother then does something truly unsettling: She begins to laugh. "This ain't funny," Joan tells her.

"It's funny to me. I'm glad you all leaving," the mother says, staring defiantly at her.

Eventually, Barbara's mother and sister, Tricia, arrive. Tricia scoops up the youngest boy and says playfully to him, "You want to go home with me?" As they gather the children together, Tricia says, "This is for the good, they should have done this at the beginning." She also recalls telling a judge at one hearing that it was actually the teenager who was taking care of the kids, not the retarded mother; she says she asked the judge, "Has something serious got to happen before you do anything?" The judge, she claims, told her yes.

Before they drive off, Joan tries to embrace her mother, but Barbara tells her, "Don't be hugging me goodbye."

McQueen hurries back to the office to fill out a court petition to place the children in the custody of Barbara's mother and sister. On the way, he grouses about the way HRS previously has handled the case, although at this point he doesn't know its full background. "I'd like to know who decided to give the children back to the mother," he says. "She's incapable of caring for them.... I'm so pissed at those other workers. If they can live with themselves, so be it. But if they don't want to work, then for the safety of the children they should get out of the business." (In all fairness, protective services workers who do long-term followup -- such as the one McQueen tried to reach from Barbara's home -- usually have too many cases to handle any individual one thoroughly. Their caseload of 75 or more is at least five times the national average. Combined with what HRS director Bock admits is low pay, low skill, and high turnover, it can be a recipe for disaster. Indeed, with 63 protective services workers in her district monitoring 6300 children, Bock admits, "Protective services can't do that job. It's one of the biggest shams in the state of Florida.")

The agency has made efforts over the years to help Barbara raise her children. Although the youngest daughter briefly was taken out of the home after being born in 1992, the juvenile court, HRS investigators, assorted legal guardians, and medical experts have determined at a series of hearings that Barbara was capable of raising the children herself -- if a variety of counseling and day-care services were offered. Programs such as Family Builders, which provides intensive therapy and emergency aid, have been offered, but Barbara has spurned their help at times, just as she often has rejected her family's offers to provide assistance. After a second child, a boy, was born with traces of drugs last year, HRS removed the baby and temporarily placed him with Barbara's mother from November 1994 to March 1995, until a full range of services were put in place under a court-ordered plan. Barbara's family, though, began asking in December for custody of all the children, but HRS contended that the two children still in the home weren't in immediate danger, so the family's request was denied. The son was returned to Barbara in March, when HRS officials concluded that -- with enough services now available -- that Barbara, a drug-using retarded mother, was capable of raising all the children on her own. "If we had to do it all over again, we'd do the same thing," says Todd Faber, assistant district legal counsel for HRS.

Now Barbara's family is back in court once more. A day after McQueen has arranged to remove the kids, the mother has changed her mind and wants the teenage daughter back. Today she hugs Joan when she comes into the hallway outside Circuit Court Judge Victoria Platzer's juvenile division courtroom. Joan, though, is feeling ambivalent about what to do. She huddles with a court-appointed lawyer, who then tells the judge, "She's angry at her mother for having her removed. She doesn't want to live with her, but wants to be able visit her." This time all the children are finally taken away from Barbara.

Sitting on a bench afterward, Tricia tells one of the lawyers, "If Barbara had just let us help her, you all could have kept out of this."

Lawyers and investigators for HRS are, indeed, often drawn into family disputes that can't be resolved peaceably. One way this most clearly emerges is in the filing of false abuse reports. Even Anita Bock allows, "People do use the abuse registry for harassment purposes."

But to a P.I. such as Lulus McQueen, the benefits of the current reporting system -- including the use of anonymous reports -- outweigh any drawbacks. "If a person is fearful of being accused of filing a false report, real abuse may not be called in," contends McQueen, as he heads out one day to check out a report of medical neglect that was phoned in anonymously. When he enters the house, he confronts a middle-age mother, Lucy, her 22-year-old daughter, Louise, and Lucy's two-year-old granddaughter. They sit in a well-kept living room, the sofas covered with plastic slipcovers and the shelves neatly displaying figurines.

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