The Protectors

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

A list of childhood abuses hangs on the glass partition in the tiny cubicle used by Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) protective investigator Lulus McQueen. It serves, in some ways, as a stark reminder of the cruelties that he may uncover each day on the job. The list is meant to provide coded categories that will be used in confidential abuse reports, but it also reveals the astonishing range of harm that can be inflicted on children in Miami. Physical injuries start with "bruises/welts" and "burns/scalds," escalate through "brain or spinal cord damage" and "suffocation/drowning," and end, finally, with "death due to abuse/neglect." The list also includes separate categories for different forms of sexual battery, substance abuse, neglect, and abandonment. About 900 such abuse and neglect allegations are routed each month to Dade County HRS's Children and Families Program through a central hotline (1-800-96ABUSE) located in Tallahassee. It is up to people such as the Bahamian-born McQueen to find out as quickly as possible if the accusations are true -- and, if needed, to do whatever's necessary to protect the children from any further harm.

HRS protective investigators even are required at times to make life-and-death decisions, and if a child somehow remains in a dangerous home, the results can be fatal. In 1993, for instance, a Dade protective investigator wasn't able to confirm a report that a four-year-old boy almost was drowned by his parents. A few months later, the child was beaten to death by the mother's live-in boyfriend. Being a protective investigator, or P.I., then, entails enormous responsibility. Not only that, but every time Lulus McQueen goes out into the inner-city neighborhoods of Miami to deal with the cases assigned to him, he faces a special challenge: How will he maneuver his way through a minefield of conflicting stories, divided families, and bureaucratic snafus to help children in need? And these days McQueen and the 90 other Dade P.I.'s are doing their work in a particularly unfriendly political environment: Republican legislators in Tallahassee have denounced the department for mismanagement (Miami State Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart brands it "the worst-run state agency in the country") and voted out Jim Towey, the mentor of HRS District 11 administrator Anita Bock, as chief of the agency.

For her part, Bock, whose bailiwick includes Dade and Monroe counties, concedes "it is a mismanaged agency," but sharply improved. For instance Bock says that when she started at Dade HRS in 1992, the protective investigations division was "an unqualified disaster.... There was just chaos in this area." But she argues that tighter management controls and a more accurate computer system have strengthened a work force that is still underpaid and inadequately trained. She also contends that her district has been hamstrung by the legislature's budget cuts and its refusal to grant her the financial flexibility she wants to upgrade training and salaries. The deeper problem, she insists, is "this community and Florida at large are not prepared to take care of their children and the elderly."

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The controversy over HRS is just a faint undercurrent on a recent Friday morning in May when Lulus McQueen leaves his run-down Little Havana office on his first case of the day. McQueen, an affable, casually dressed 43-year-old man with a slight paunch, isn't thinking about politics, but rather about the alleged sexual abuse of a three-year-old child -- and the travails of HRS investigators. It's a hot day, and the prospect of driving around in his own 1988 Audi with a broken air conditioner, a hand-me-down from his brother, seems especially unappealing. (HRS provides no official agency cars for investigators.) Given his base salary of $22,000, McQueen shrugs, "I can't afford to fix it now." But despite his paltry pay, he at least remains idealistic: "You don't come here to make money. You're here to save lives and help families."

That's what he's trying to do as he heads to Overtown to pursue an investigation he started the day before. (To protect the confidentiality of families and children, names have been changed in all cases and certain details have been altered or disguised.) Each case, after being approved by Tallahassee for further investigation, is tagged as either "immediate" or "24-hour" by the central abuse registry, and although this case didn't require his instant attention, McQueen chose to start in on it right away: "I wanted to make sure that the child isn't in any danger." Investigators are the firemen of family turmoil, and speed is usually essential.

But in the murky arena of sexual abuse, the truth often proves elusive. Yesterday, McQueen managed to speak to the grandmother of the alleged victim and to the child himself, who was taken by police to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Rape Treatment Center (RTC) for an exam. (As is often the case, the child's mother phoned the police, who in turn notified the HRS hotline.)

The child told a story about his father -- who lives apart from his mother -- touching his "pee-pee" and putting the father's "pee-pee" in the son's "butt." Today, when McQueen speaks to the boy's mother, she tells him that while bathing her son, "I saw what looked like come in his behind."

After talking a while with the mother, McQueen continues to sort things out in his mind on the trip back to the office. "I feel badly for the mother and the child, but I've got to keep my focus on how to prove what actually happened," he points out. Later today, after his interview with the mother, he learns from the detective on the case that the RTC examination found no evidence of penetration or sexual abuse. (No arrests are made, and McQueen, after concluding that the sexual allegation was unfounded, refers the mother a few days later to counseling to help her cope with the stresses of raising her child.) McQueen still has no firm idea of what really happened, but he doesn't have time to dwell on it. He's got other cases to pursue.

McQueen isn't frustrated by the large portion of unproven and unfounded cases he encounters. "If nothing happened, that's great," he says. "There's a sense of relief that nothing has taken place." Only about ten percent of the approximately 10,000 abuse reports handled by Dade HRS annually are definitively confirmed. At least 30 percent fall into a muddy category where something may have happened, but there's no way to prove it.

But if abuse allegations appear to be well-grounded and McQueen feels a child is in immediate danger, he has the authority to remove the child from a home and place him or her with relatives or in an HRS shelter, then seek court approval within 24 hours. In truth it is a power that is invoked only infrequently because of the state legislature's 1993 directive promoting "family preservation." The agency generally has sought to comply with this policy -- only eight percent of abuse reports lead to a child's removal from the home -- but even so, among the families that Lulus McQueen visits, the fear of having their kids snatched away by the government is a very real one.

Inside the decaying Liberty City apartment building, with unsupervised children playing outside near exposed wiring and amid broken windows, a mother is very nervous. Anna, a thin Hispanic woman in her early thirties, bustles about the apartment, smiling, tense, and deferential, even offering to fetch a drink for McQueen. She has been accused in the report he holds of abusing drugs and endangering her two children, a boy and a girl, and she has been the target of similar earlier complaints to HRS.

McQueen tries to put her at ease. "We want to see if we can help. We were called about some allegations, and I'm here to assist in any way I can," he explains, seated across from her with a notepad. In the last year and a half, HRS has sought to move away from a coplike approach in abuse investigations, and move toward what director Anita Bock calls a "social worker mode." Although McQueen has been a P.I. only for six months, he is well-suited to this new style because he has worked for years as a drug and alcohol counselor, first for a nonprofit agency, then for HRS, and later for the University of Miami. Despite his gentle style, he must ask the woman hard questions. In a matter-of-fact way, he glances down at his abuse report and begins reading aloud the allegations to her:

"Anna is abusing illicit drugs and it is likely affecting her ability to care for her children. She has sudden mood swings. She's talked of killing herself and her kids. She was so high on drugs she got in a car accident while one of the kids was inside." McQueen speaks softly, almost apologetically. "Sometimes these reports are true, sometimes they're not," he adds. (The identity of the person who reported Anna to HRS is kept secret from everyone except HRS officials, a procedure designed to encourage citizens to report abuse without fear of retaliation.)

Anna continues to smile while listening to the litany of complaints, doing her best to be charming. "I know why this report was called in," she finally says in a fast-talking, high-strung way. "I was late picking up my daughter from daycare, and I was turning the corner when this car ran into me." Her son was in the car at the time. However, her faaade of good cheer crumbles for a moment when she realizes the gravity of the charges against her. "I don't believe this," she suddenly says, shaking her head.

McQueen nods understandingly, then goes over the allegations one by one. "Do you use drugs?" he asks.

"I got off drugs a year ago," she says, and when McQueen asks, she agrees to take a voluntary drug test, then goes on to deny or explain away all of the allegations. She's eager to prove that she's a good parent, and there's a certain desperation in her voice when she says, "You could look at my refrigerator and check to see there's no problem. That's what the lady who was here last time did."

McQueen declines, and asks Anna to take him over to both a grade school and a day-care center in the neighborhood so he can talk to her children. The first stop is the elementary school, where McQueen arranges to speak privately with the eight-year-old child in a conference room. The boy, in his Ninja Turtles T-shirt, obediently follows the P.I. inside. McQueen acts as friendly as he can, but even with his easygoing manner there's no disguising the difficulty of the questions he has to ask.

"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.

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.

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.

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."

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."

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.

"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."

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.)

This preliminary visit is his last case for the day. McQueen, as he heads back to his car, isn't disappointed that the charges didn't pan out. "Even if the allegations are not proven, there's a sense of excitement about this work," he says. But he's also aware that his mission of helping the children is not easily fulfilled, in part because of the roadblocks his own agency often puts in the way. "We need more committed P.I.'s to this work," says McQueen. "HRS is trying to do their best with the few good P.I.'s they have, but their best may not be good enough.

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