Cops like to tell stories. They’re good at it. They’re trained to think in specifics, to make precise observations. Atop an arrest report, right beneath “officer’s report,” it says “narrative.”

On one of my first days at the Chula Vista Police Department I went with Agent Ruth Hinzman, Agent Phil Collum, and a uniformed officer on what is called a child welfare check. Hinzman and Collum work in the Family Protection Unit at the Chula Vista Police Department. Their main beat is child abuse and molestation, sex crimes, elder abuse. It was a return visit to this house to see if conditions had improved from the last time they were here, a week or so earlier, following up on a complaint that the children were inadequately cared for and possibly abused. The place had been dead-rat dirty and contained little edible food. They’d checked the kids, told the mother to clean up the place and get some food. Told her they’d be back.

This time they came unannounced at about 10:00 a.m. and it took repeated knocking on both the front and side doors to rouse the occupants. When the mother finally answered the door and let us in, the conditions looked bad enough to me. The place smelled — of mold, urine, shadows, diapers, of a sad sourness. The woman’s eyes seemed bleary and darkened. Bruises, I thought. Ruth told me later it was smeared makeup covering old bruises. Two of the children, a boy and a girl, dressed only in underpants, sat on the couch. Several loaves of bread, covered with huge spots of blue-green mold, were on a table just outside the kitchen door. A half-eaten fast-food sandwich sat on the table. I noticed a poured and then forgotten glass of milk on a windowsill — a few inches of it evaporated, leaving a dusty white ring around the inside of the glass. Phil awakened the woman’s boyfriend, who was sleeping in the garage. He sat with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, as if nursing a massive hangover. Ruth spoke gently to the woman. Phil checked the refrigerator for edible food and also the bathroom to see if it was operable and clean enough. I thought, given the way the place looked, that the kids would be scooped up and removed on the spot. Instead, after explaining to the woman that they’d be checking (ditto social services) on her and the kids again, we left. When I asked, Ruth said that the place was much improved, cleaned up considerably. I said I couldn’t imagine how it looked before and Phil said something like, You should have seen the place I went to once.

A few days later, he showed me the arrest reports he and another officer wrote about that call. The names and the addressees were blacked out. First, from the other officer’s report. He and Agent Collum arrived at about the same time: “As I stood in the doorway, I observed trash and garbage all over the entire house that I could see from my vantage point. I could smell urine and several other smells that made me gag and almost throw up.” The mother (there were four children living there) informed the officers that she didn’t feel well. “She said she had eaten a lot of chocolate and was going to the doctor.” Collum’s report (he also took three rolls of film) commented on the smell too: “I was immediately bowled over by a powerful odor emanating from within the apartment. I saw that the entire floor surface was completely covered in dirt, filth, feces, and other debris.” The first child he saw, lying naked in a fetal position on the sofa, turned out to be a three-year-old boy. “I could see marks on his back which appeared to be green crayon marks. There were several of them, as though someone had been writing or drawing lines across his back.” Collum stepped into the house and “I looked around and saw numerous insects flying through the air and crawling over just about everything in sight. The entire ceiling area appeared riddled with spider webs, spiders, and other insects, as did all the corners and walls of the apartment.” The mother told Collum that a second child, a daughter, was in the other room. (The other two children were not at home at the time.) “I located the child in what appeared to be a master bedroom. She held her hands clasped together near her mouth with her elbows out. She was spinning with her torso back and forth as she sat. She appeared very stressed and extremely frightened. I called to her and tried to speak with her but she was completely noncommunicative.” After fire department medical personnel arrived, they said it was too filthy to try to treat the mother and the children in the house so they moved outside. The mother signed a “consent to search” form and Collum went back inside to take pictures and continue his report, which he was tape-recording. It starts innocuously enough: “I saw a few toys, including a toy baking oven and other small items.” Then follows a walking tour of Hell: “In several areas of the floor were piles of what appeared to be human feces and urine stains. I noted used diapers in the tens piled and strewn on the floor…while it appeared there had been food in the refrigerator at one time, those items were now completely non-edible, covered in mold and insects…when I looked at the bottom of the refrigerator I noted that it seemed extremely dark…upon closer inspection I noticed that the entire floor of the refrigerator was covered with dead insects, such that I could not see the bottom…piles of insects flowed from the floor to the refrigerator and onto the carpet area just beneath it…the sink appeared to be clogged with a liquid substance filling within.”

He saw a big bag of cat food and an overflowing bowl of it and a box where he surmised a cat recently gave birth to a litter. Agent Collum thought he might be walking on dead kittens (there were squishy spots) beneath the trash, but later a neighbor told of the kids throwing a kitten against a fence, picking it up and tossing it again. The neighbor also reported the kids trying to hang a cat by the neck from a tree. The kids were taken to Children’s Hospital, and when Collum arrived shortly thereafter he was informed by hospital staff that the children were swarming with lice. One of the last lines of the report, referring to the little girl he found in the bedroom, is “She was still completely noncommunicative. The only word I heard her say throughout my entire contact with her was NO. She said this when one of the staff attempted to take a toy away from her.”

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