The Protectors

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

"What did they say about us?" Lucy demands, and McQueen apologetically reads out allegations that the child has open sores and hasn't been taken to the doctor. Lucy is dumbfounded and stands up angrily, her right hand on her hip. "Get out of there with those lies!" she exclaims, before calming down and trying to figure out what prompted McQueen's visit. "She had the chickenpox...but look how fat and healthy she is." Louise adds that she's been taking her daughter to the doctor regularly, and when McQueen examines the young girl, he sees that there's nothing wrong with the child. Lucy is still simmering, though, and begins marching around her kitchen, opening up pantry doors. "Look at all this food!"

Then Lucy and her daughter begin speculating on who could have phoned in the report. "I wouldn't be surprised if that old nasty dad did this," Lucy says, and her daughter agrees. Louise and the man had broken up recently, and she had rejected his request to move in with her.

"You see it's all lies," Lucy says, and McQueen concurs. "This case is not going another step," he reassures them. Still, the family wonders why this investigation was necessary at all. "It's wasting your time," Lucy says of such visits triggered by anonymous tips, "taking you away from seeing kids you really should see."

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McQueen views it differently. "If the calls are not made, we are in a situation where we may lose a child," he points out. As he leaves, however, he tries to make amends, remarking, "Sorry about having to do this."

Regardless of whether or not abuse reports are borne out, they trigger HRS investigations that sometimes can result in valuable help to families, particularly when previous HRS services have fallen short. For instance when another protective investigator, Rosemary Bridges, who works in the North Dade office, went out on a recent weekday to check out a teenage daughter's allegation of beatings by her father, she discovered something perhaps even worse: a frail, crippled mother, almost as bone-thin as a concentration camp survivor, staring addle-brained at the television in a stifling apartment. Sitting with her was another daughter, staying home from school to take care of her. "Who feeds her?" Bridges asks.

"When my dad comes home from work [in the morning], he does," the girl answers, adding that after school she and her sister supposedly take over. But it's about noon and the father is nowhere to be found. Later that day, when Bridges questions the daughter who made the original abuse allegation, the P.I. learns that sometimes the father bars his daughters from even feeding their mother cereal without his permission. By the end of her preliminary interviews on this first day, Bridges hasn't settled the issue of child abuse, but she's sure the mother needs more regular attention and meals than she's been getting. In fact HRS already had been notified in February 1994 that the mother was being neglected. "Maybe the father's so mean, he's starving her to death," she speculates. Bridges later discovers the mother receives only once-a-month visits from another HRS division, Aging and Adult Services, which investigates abuse and neglect of adults; it somehow has missed the obvious fact that a woman is wasting away in front of their eyes. (Bridges, who can't prove the child abuse allegation, later arranges for the family to receive counseling and for the mother to receive visits from another HRS division, too, one that helps the handicapped. Before all these services can be provided, however, there still will be no guarantee that the mother is being regularly fed.)

"There are so many needs in this city of Miami," says Lulus McQueen, "so many situations where people are abused."

Suffering is the common currency in virtually all the homes that McQueen visits, but he doesn't let himself get overwhelmed by the problems he sees. He tries to close cases quickly so he can move on to the next one, and as a result he has a backlog of only about ten cases, slightly lower than that of the average triage investigator. On any given day, he will receive an average of three new abuse reports to investigate, and the truth about each one is never easy to determine.

One day in the late afternoon, McQueen is expecting to finish some overdue paperwork when he receives an inflammatory report. It is a shocking letter -- passed along to HRS from the governor's office of a Southern state, then routed to McQueen to handle. In the letter, the parents allege that their son attends a school in Miami for emotionally disturbed children where staff members pay children for sex, teach them to steal from nearby stores, and only clean the place up when the state conducts inspections. Yet when McQueen goes to the school, officials there accept his presence calmly because they're used to such visits. The teenage boy mentioned in the letter is ushered into an empty classroom to speak to McQueen alone, and the P.I. is careful not to tell him that the allegations come from his own parents. When he's asked about the sex and theft charges, the boy says simply, "I haven't heard nothing about that." But he does agree that the school officials take pains to spruce up the school only before inspections. (McQueen drops in unannounced on the school a few days later, and takes a few other boys aside; they offer similar denials.)

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