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Chula Vista's Family Protection Unit goes after abusers

Scum busters

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.”

Maybe this is not high narrative, but it sure tells the story. I’ve read many literary novels I’ve almost completely forgotten. This narrative I will never forget.

A cop for eight years, Phil Collum is 30. Because the younger officers at the police academy graduate when they’re in their early 20s, it’s possible to be a seasoned veteran by 30 or so. He’s a San Diego native and attended UC Santa Cruz. Tall and lean, he runs “at least twice a day” and works out religiously as well. He goes to bed about 8:30 at night and gets up at 4:00 a.m. He describes himself as one of the department’s few real “computer geeks.”

He and his colleagues, all of whom (but for two who were on vacation) you will meet, see and smell things like the above on a more or less regular basis; that is, when they’re not dealing with child molestation, rape, people beating up and robbing old people, etc. Not a happy job. But not one, either, without its rewards.

Agent Collum told me about a rape case he’d worked on. A man attacked a woman, beat her, and raped her with a foreign object in a ditch near her home. This was one of the rare “stranger” rapes — the vast majority of rapes are done by someone who knows the victim. Somehow, she managed to talk the rapist into taking her back to her apartment, where she knew, and he did not, that her roommates were home. She escaped by screaming bloody murder the second she opened the door. Collum admired her courage and developed a good rapport with her during the investigation and through the rapist’s trial. He was arrested only minutes after fleeing. She made an excellent witness. The guy got 31 years to life. He has to do at least 24. That’s one of the rewards. Collum called it “the one strike and you’re out law — for real offensive offences.”

Agent Collum was the second man on the scene at the notorious Jenny Rojas murder case. He said all during the investigation he was OK, but at the trial, on the stand, when he had to look at pictures of the murdered child, he nearly broke down: “Well, it’s been emotionally difficult since then. Images that I’ll never forget.”

One of the things Collum was doing on top of his regular police work (each officer in the unit averages about 47 cases a month) was writing up a grant proposal to get some more computers for the unit. I thought: Cops have to apply for grants to buy equipment? Poets should apply for grants (and not get them — it makes them tougher), maybe scientists, graduate students…but not cops, the goddamn city or state should just give them what they need! Then I thought: No, I forgot, all the money goes to teachers and social workers. I was working up a little irony lather.

Ruth Hinzman, 41, could pass easily for someone a half dozen years younger. She is a 15-year police veteran and with the Family Protection Unit 4 years, 2 in an earlier tour and 2 and counting now. Like all officers, she spent several years on patrol. She’s also worked traffic and property crimes. She has brown hair, soft brown eyes, and is very attractive. Let me put it this way: if she worked a different unit and weren’t married, I might turn into one of those guys who confesses to every crime he reads about in the papers — if they let me confess to her. She has a 7-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and was recently remarried. Around the unit she has the reputation of being a disarming and expert interrogator. She once got a guy to confess to rape by saying to him things like, “You know, I don’t consider what you did as rape, rape is a very harsh word. I saw how that girl was dressed — she probably wanted it. I’d call what you did more like vaginal trespassing.” Guys says, “Yeah, that’s what it was, trespassing.” He’s thinking — “Trespassing, that’s only a minor misdemeanor. Hell, I’ll cop to that rather than rape.” Too late, sucker, you already confessed to a felony, rape. Vaginal trespassing is rape. Adios, you’re on your way to a bid in state prison. Ruth will say to a guy, “I can see why she [a 12-year-old] would want to have sex with you, you’re a good-looking, sexy guy and she came on to you, right?” The macho dork’s (Ruth’s most common word for offenders) ego kicks in and he admits it: “Sure, I fucked her brains out, she loved it.” Got you, moron. Being stupid isn’t a crime, but being stupid and a rapist is. Sex with a 12-year-old is rape. (Note: I never heard these cops, or any others for that matter, use the word “perp.” Most often offenders were referred to as knuckleheads, bad guys, yahoos, and by a few other names not fit for family newspapers.)

Ruth was the only female agent in the unit at this time. Another, Sgt. Laura Colson, who was spoken of with great respect, had recently left to take a job as investigator for the district attorney in San Diego. I assumed, since many of the victims this unit deals with are children and women, that victims (particularly after a rape) might be much more comfortable talking to a female cop. I didn’t want to stereotype, and each time I heard one of the male cops speak to a woman or child victim, they did so with gentleness, courtesy, and patience. I asked Ruth about this. She said she tended to make people in general feel comfortable and that victims, particularly rape victims, often request to talk to a female officer about what happened to them. If she’s not available another female officer will be.

I also asked Ruth, as I asked most of the other officers with children, if working in this unit affects how they raise their own kids. They all used the word “paranoid.” All of them. And to each I said, “I’m sure you don’t mean that in the clinical sense.” What they meant was, they are supervigilant. She said, “Say we go to Target and my daughter wants to look at Barbies. I stand there with her. I’m not gonna leave her alone. If I were a pedophile, that’s where I’d be looking for victims.”

Later she told a joke: Man comes home to find his wife enraged and throwing all his stuff out of the house onto the lawn, etc., screams at him, “You sonofabitch, you bastard, I just found out you’re a pedophile!” Man says, “Why, sweetie, that’s a very big word — pedophile — for a ten-year-old girl to know.” (Note: Lest the reader’s irony meter is off, or my timing: the joke does not make fun of pedophilia, it makes fun of some men’s notion that sex with children is an acceptable thing.)

One of the more common, ugly, and frustrating crimes the Family Protection Unit investigates is date rape, sometimes called acquaintance rape. This most often involves minors, girls 12 to 16, say. The suspects are usually young men, 18 to early 20s. “The letter of the law is clear: If a woman says no, the action stops,” Ruth said. But there is sometimes a sense of ambivalence. “A girl never deserves it, and girls and women need to do what we can to protect ourselves. We need to be cautious of our actions and our surroundings. We need to insure we don’t do anything that could lead to our victimization.” She added, “The way I was brought up you don’t get yourself in a situation you can’t get out of.” Most of the time alcohol is involved. And, in recent years, a drug called Rohypnol — “roofies,” on the street — is used by men to knock women unconscious, after which they rape them. (No one had heard of a case where a man was given Rohypnol and raped.) It’s a drug given to patients about to undergo major surgeries. (Note: Who, or what, in our psyches, in our culture, in the darkest pits of our souls, is it that allows a man, young or old, to believe sex with an unconscious woman could in any way be pleasurable or satisfying? I ask of Freudians: Does this indicate that necrophilia is really a much more common deviancy than previously thought?)

But rape is not about sex; no matter what the situation, it’s not about sex.

Most often roofies are slipped, like a Mickey, into a girl’s drink. Ruth mentioned one young woman who took Rohypnol willingly to see what would happen. She’d also been drinking. She asked the boys she was with, whom she’d just recently met, to watch out for her and not let anyone take advantage of her. What did the boys do when she went under? You guessed it — they raped her. Wonder why this crime is frustrating and very difficult to prosecute?

I heard a story later about a case Agent Pike (you’ll meet him soon) worked. A 19-year-old male was picking up (using Daddy’s Caddy) girls 12 to 15, taking them home (where he had his own apartment in the garage at his parent’s house, affording him some privacy), and after giving them drugs and/or alcohol, he would rape them, often inviting a few pals to join in the fun. There were more than a dozen victims. (Note: I have a 13-year-old daughter. If someone did that to her, it would behoove me to disembowel that person and strangle him with his own intestines. If I had a son and he did that to someone else, my shame would be unbearable.) He also videotaped these sessions, sometimes with, sometimes without, the girl’s knowledge. The guy pleaded out, got only a year of local jail time (a lot easier to do than state prison time), served part of it, and walked. He did become, as does everyone convicted of a sex crime in California, what’s called a 290 registrant. Meaning he has to register with his local police department, inform them of the slightest move (“If you move even across the hall on the same floor, you have to come in and tell us,” Pike said to one man who came in). If you move to California from out of state you have to register. This gives some satisfaction to cops who bust their asses to bust a guy like the 19-year-old above who more or less got off scot-free: “At least he has to be a 290 registrant for the rest of his life.” Legislation is in the works to make it mandatory for all convicted sex offenders to provide DNA samples for a national data bank.

The Family Protection Unit office is announced by one of those ubiquitous signs stamped in white on plastic meant to look like wood: Sex Crimes, it says, and just below that, Child Abuse. You take a left past a door with a bright red Biohazard sign on it (I never asked) and the first thing you run into is a big pink pig, then a cow (wearing a cowboy hat), a bear (wearing a red cap), and a duck. There are many more stuffed animals here, dozens of them (donated, mostly by cops), and scattered throughout the office too. Lying across five staplers on top of a file cabinet: a languorous bunny. There are also a few shelves of blankets and colorful quilts. Agent Collum opened a drawer filled with baby food and diapers. And many more drawings by kids than normal in an office place. There’s one next to Collum’s desk: a river and mountain and forest with “Hi Phil!” written on it. The kid, who was being interviewed by Child Protective Services workers, knew that Phil was watching through a two-way mirror (children are informed of this when they’re interviewed) and he was goofing with him. These drawings give the room some color, which is good because it’s crowded, cluttered, low-ceilinged, and its paint a little dusty.

The agents each have a desk, some partially closed off cubicle-style, all very close together, and the place is noisy, with talk and phones. When several people were in the office I usually sat at the end of a table that jutted out to just about the center of the room. Questions, comments, wisecracks fly around the room. Somebody asks another agent if he speaks Spanish. “Only enough to get my face slapped,” he says. One agent would ask a question of another or just throw it out to the room: What’s his name that did this or that, or what’s new with this case? Or Ruth stands up and reads a postcard from the unit’s Sergeant, Tro Peltekian, who’s on vacation with his family in London. (Note: I interviewed a few of the agents in Peltekian’s small office in the rear of the main room because it was quieter. On his desk was a small fountain with some stones in it, dry in his absence and lacking the soothing sounds it provides; a box of tissues; and a large bottle of Tums.) Kevin Pike is asking Phil for some computer help. An officer comes in from another unit with a question. An officer stops by to say hello or to grab a cookie or a piece of cake somebody brought in. The goodies occupied the other end of the table where I usually sat. Again, breaking stereotype, it wasn’t the women in the office — Ruth and Wendy (whom you will meet presently) — who always brought in food. Once there was a plate of sliced-up skinless chicken breast. Or was it some kind of sushi thing? Everybody knew it was Phil Collum who brought that. Collum, as the unit’s health nut, gets razzed if he eats a cookie or a piece of cake. One day, Agent Munch (he, too, you will meet soon) was going to have lunch with his grandmother, who lived only a few blocks away. She asked him if he wanted a tuna or a liver sandwich. Some merriment was made over those culinary options.

Often, if there’s a particular question about a particular case, or name, or date, it’s not one of the agents who answers but Wendy Manzo, the unit’s administrative secretary, who plays an important role on this team though she’s not a sworn officer. She’s a zaftig strawberry blonde with a huge heart, exceptional memory for detail, and the only person in the office who speaks fluent Spanish. Wendy has three children, a 14-year-old son and daughters 13 and 11. As a survivor of domestic violence herself, Wendy, now divorced from the father of her children and the man who beat her, can empathize with women in this situation. She understands why women stay with a man long after they know the relationship is abusive and dangerous — fear: of more violence, of poverty, of shame, fear that they may deserve it or are to blame. The last straw and the last beating she took from her ex-husband happened during a pregnancy. Her three-year-old was watching.

Her official duties at the Family Protection Unit include answering phones, getting information to Child Protective Services, transcribing arrest reports, etc. Unofficially, she acts as translator, counselor to victims and her colleagues, information keeper (“I do pay attention”) and sifter, and general Big Heart. After ten years raising her children (who accuse her of being “paranoid” about their safety) alone, she’s been in a new relationship for the past year or so. She said it took her a while to get used to a man who is gentle, thoughtful, and caring.

It’s true that almost all of the bad guys this unit deals with are guys, men. Women abuse and neglect children but very rarely rape or sexually abuse them. When these cases do happen they seem to get a lot more attention. The recent LeTourneau case, for example. She was convicted of sleeping with and having a child by her 13-year-old student. She got out on parole, slept with him again, was caught, got pregnant again, and went back to the can. Is it because these cases are so rare and unusual that they get so much publicity, or might there be other reasons too?

One kind of child abuse, recently given a name, Munchausen syndrome by proxy, is particularly disturbing. This is when a mother (men commit these crimes too but in this case are in the minority) deliberately makes or keeps a child sick in order to get attention, sympathy, and even money for herself. In one infamous case, a woman whose child was chronically sick for years was kept so by the woman’s putting things like potting soil or coffee grinds into the child’s IV unit. Before it was learned what was really going on, the woman and her child had been picked up by the media as a tragic human-interest story — poor, dedicated, single mother bravely fighting the hmos and the medical establishment to get proper care and treatment for her child. The public sent her thousands of dollars in donations. Some people have been caught, on videotape, lying across their children’s bodies, nearly smothering them (you see their little legs kicking desperately), and then calling the nurse or doctor in and saying, “See, my child is having trouble breathing, or having a seizure.”

Who but us is there to pray for us? The fiction writer with the best and most warped imagination in the world could not make up something like this.

My first day at the Family Protection Unit was also the first day in this unit for John Munch, a 29-year-old officer, newly promoted to agent, who had applied for an opening in this unit and got it. Munch is about six feet tall, sandy-haired, and almost handsome enough to play a cop on TV if he weren’t a real cop and could act. He’s married and has a three-month-old baby. When he told me this I said that he didn’t look tired enough for a man with a baby. He told me his wife had been cutting him a little slack re nighttime baby care and was letting him sleep on the couch for a few nights. He then remarked that this is the only time sleeping on the couch is a good thing. Even though he was the new guy here, Agent Munch (though Ruth was a close second) turned out to be the office wiseacre and satirical wit. He said to a suspect he was interrogating, “We don’t do this for shits and giggles.”

His first weekend at the Family Protection Unit he was on call, meaning if a crime occurred off-hours that needed an investigator’s immediate attention, he showed up. The call came about midnight Sunday. Saturday his baby had a rough night and this time he shared the duties. The next night he and his wife had gone to her high school reunion and he’d been asleep about an hour when the phone rang. He worked traffic for a few years — if his phone rang in the middle of the night then “I knew somebody was dead.”

When I saw him Monday morning he looked more tired than even a new parent usually does. He was reviewing a videotape of his interview with a victim who had been held against her will and forced to perform copulation on her boyfriend for about five hours. It was 3:00 a.m. Agent Munch questioned the woman with patience and great detail. The story was not without its oddities. For example, the suspect had some serious wood problems: he couldn’t get it up while he was forcing her to do this. He was popping porno videos in the vcr at the same time but they didn’t seem to help. (Note: The victim, in her interview, said they were hard-core porno films. During the alleged knucklehead’s — Munch’s favorite term for a bad guy — interrogation he said one video was “some kind of women-in-prison movie that was hers” and the other was “What was the name of it? A recent major motion picture.”) Where lies the truth? Sometimes, but not always, in the middle.

With the suspect, Munch wasn’t as patient and gentle and seemed a little more tired — it was 5:00 a.m. Occasionally, he seemed somewhat confused, asked the guy “help me out a little here.” The guy had priors for sexual assault and was also on probation for an involvement with a crystal meth operation. Munch was very tired but was also deking the guy a little — he knew the suspect knew (he told him) he was new to this beat, he knew the guy was very savvy. My hunch is Munch was doing a little Columbo number on the guy, i.e., Agent Munch can act, at least on the job. As we’ll find out, all of the agents have this skill to one degree or another. The suspect was hyper. He kept asking what he was charged with exactly, and when Munch told him (false imprisonment, forced oral cop, a few others) the suspect wanted to know the numbers for those crimes in the penal code — so he could look up what he might be facing, try to figure the odds, etc.

From both the victim and the suspect Munch learned there was another person on the scene, though not in the same room — a friend of the victim’s who wouldn’t leave because she was afraid for her. They were in a small house trailer and the witness was very close, heard a lot, looked in a few times. She heard some thumps “like somebody’s head knocking against a wall.” During one of these look-ins the victim mouthed the words “Call the cops,” and that’s what she did. Munch needed to talk to her and went to her place of work to do so. During this interview, which contradicted the suspect’s story and confirmed the victim’s, he learned that the suspect once allegedly held another woman friend of hers at knifepoint for a day and a half, during which he took photographs of her. She did not elaborate on the nature of the pictures, but a picture of this guy and his tastes was beginning to form in Agent Munch’s mind. Before talking to this witness, Munch wasn’t very optimistic about the case flying with the district attorney. He suspected that the victim ultimately wouldn’t press charges, which often happens. (And which did, too, in this case a few days later.) But this witness seemed reliable and said she’d be willing to testify. She was afraid of this guy and afraid for her friend.

Munch decided he might also arrest the guy for the knifepoint deal. He’d go to the jail and arrest him again tomorrow and I could come along. Since I am a lover of irony (it seems to me one of the few defenses in a hypocritical and insane world), I liked that invitation. I’ve heard of people being arrested while already in jail or prison, but I wondered how it actually worked. Did you walk up to a guy’s cell and tell him through the bars he’s under arrest and read him his rights? Does he get cuffed and then moved to the cell next door? Do you pull him out of the lunch line and read him his rights? He’s breaking up rocks in the yard and you say, “Hold that hammer a minute while I bust your ass”? What does a guy’s face look like when he’s already in jail and he gets arrested again?

When we got back to the Family Protection Unit, Munch ran this possibility by Agent Ron Lederle (who’s coming up soon), who advised him not to do it, at least at this time. I’m not sure who was more disappointed: Agent Munch or me.

On my first day at the Family Protection Unit I met Agent Steve Fobes, briefly. It was his day off, but he was in anyway “checking on something.” He wore shorts, T-shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap. He’s tall, dark-haired, in his early 40s, and has a bit of a baby face. So does Agent Munch, which he says helps him sometimes in interrogations. I only caught glimpses of Fobes for the next several days, but I heard plenty about him from his colleagues. “Like a dog on a pant leg,” Wendy said, describing how he works a case. “He just never gives up,” someone else said. The case he had now involved a 15-year-old girl viciously date raped (vaginally, anally, orally) a few days earlier by three young men, 18 to 19. “They tore her up pretty bad,” he said. The girl, who had drunk several shots of tequila and some beer, remembered very little of the attack. When she was taken to the hospital her blood alcohol level was 4.6, which should have killed her (the state record is 5.1, taken from a wino in L.A.). The legal limit is .08. The doctor at the emergency room said she had a 50-50 chance. She lived. Steve was already pretty sure he knew who the guys were, but he didn’t have enough yet to arrest them. He needed more witnesses who not only put them at the scene but also saw them entering or leaving the room where the girl was raped. I went with him and Agent Kevin Pike, 44, father of five kids and an 11-year veteran of the police department, to look for one particular witness.

Pike didn’t go to the academy until he was 33 — before that he worked for many years for Chula Vista Recreation, in some of the roughest parts of town, and as a result knew a huge number of people, two and three generations, often, of families, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. His knowledge of the city and so many of its people is very useful sometimes — when he talked a huge, 300-pound man out of fighting another cop by saying, “Hey, it’s me, Kevin, you know me, calm down, calm down” — and sometimes a pain in the ass, like when other cops come up to him and say, “I just busted So-and-So and he says he’s a pal of yours.” Pike said one woman even told another cop she was his sister, and “I don’t even have a sister.” Agent Pike is built along the lines of a bulldog, wears a brush cut, and in his younger days was a hot-shot basketball player. He’s not particularly tall so I said to him, “You must have had a good outside shot.” He smiled a little: “Sure did.”

They knew the witness was at the scene, the witness knew they wanted to talk to her, but she was proving elusive, they both thought deliberately so. Something funny was going on that neither of them could put a finger on, but something funny was going on. We went to one address. She no longer lived there. We went to a few other places. Nada. We went to another place. A woman answered. I could see the legs of someone wearing jeans and sneakers inside, sitting on the floor watching TV. They got the address of the potential witness’s mother and stepfather. When we got in the car Fobes said to Pike, “That was one of the guys,” meaning jeans and sneakers. Meaning one of the alleged rapists. The guy already knew he was a suspect. Both agents were happy (though they did not speak to him) to remind him of their continued interest in the case.

I noticed that every time we approached a house or apartment door, Kevin would reach back with his right hand and just barely touch the bottom of his holster. (I never saw a shoulder holster — they all wore their weapons on their hips.) I meant to ask him if he was aware of this but never did. They always stood to the side after ringing a doorbell. Steve said it was because if someone looked through the peephole and saw it was a cop, they might not answer the door. I’m sure, also, because there’s always the possibility some bullets or buckshot will blast through the door — even on seemingly low-risk visits like these.

Forty-two cops were murdered in the United States in 1999, 61 in 1998, all killed with guns save one who was killed by a car. It’s always there, in the backs of their minds. One afternoon Agent Munch blew up then popped his sandwich bag. “Shots fired! Shots fired!” he said with mock alarm. And then, “That’s a little cop humor.”

When they went to the next house they spoke to the girl’s stepfather, who happened to be an attorney. After saying the girl wasn’t home and that he’d rather the girl’s mother not talk to them, Steve and Kevin told him (as they’d been telling everyone) that she wasn’t in any trouble, that they just needed to talk to her. Maybe she heard cops were all over looking for her. Maybe she figured it was time to tell what she knew, maybe her stepfather urged her to after talking with Fobes and Pike and getting the sense these guys are not going away so you might as well go in there and get it over with. Not long afterward she was sitting in the lobby of the police department. I don’t know what happened to this case, but I’ll tell you what: they didn’t let go.

All of these cops are driven, are pit bulls when it comes to their work. Steve Fobes, then, is a wolverine. “I won’t let them out-think me,” he said. When he knows something is off, something isn’t jibing with somebody’s story, “The hair on the back of my neck just stands up.” He says sometimes it’s like being a parent — “How does Mom know what she knows? She just knows.” He, too, is very protective of his own children. His son plays baseball and Steve insists he wear his cap bill-forward, no other way. Why? Because certain gangs wear their hats at certain angles — he doesn’t want his kid, even for a moment, even from a distance, to be mistaken for a gang member. That’s the hat rule. He’s been on the trail for several months of one guy who killed a two-year-old. “It’s just a matter of time,” he said, “just a matter of time — we’ve got so many organizations helping out on this.” It’s easy to tell: Nothing personal (or is it a little for each of them? most are parents!) but Agent Fobes wants this guy bad.

Ron Lederle, another agent in the unit, has 20 years in law enforcement and the most experience in the Family Protection Unit — he was here for 4 years earlier and is now in the second year of another 4-year tour.

Officers in the Chula Vista Police Department work patrol for several years after they graduate from the academy, and then as they pass tests and openings occur, they can be promoted to agent (which is equivalent and more or less synonymous with the rank of detective) and serve for fours years in one unit and then rotate back to patrol (but still with the rank of agent and with wider duties than regular patrol) until they move again to another investigative unit.

Lederle spent his first five years as a cop with the Coronado Police Department. He said, “That was a whole different ball game there, like Mayberry compared to New York City.” He’s always impeccably dressed, in his early 40s, wears his graying hair straight back, sports a neat brush mustache, and is fairly recently divorced, with a 16-year-old son. When he spoke of his son, whom he sees six days a week, I saw in his eyes the pain of the divorce itself and the pain he knows it caused his family. Talking of his son is also when his eyes light with joy. At one point, he handed me a poem he’d written. It’s about a young girl in the hospital in a coma after massive head injuries. The poem is in metrical quatrains and the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. It’s heartfelt and compassionate. He’s not ready to quit his day job and make a living on the poetry circuit (everyone who has tried has starved anyway), but how many cops (or how many grown men, is more the point) do you think would have the guts, the heart, to write a poem like this?

One case that haunts Ron involved a special-needs kid in foster care. The kid was normal in most respects but had to be fed intravenously — he couldn’t digest food properly. At bedtime he gets hooked up to a machine that feeds him over eight hours. One night his caretaker decides to go out and leaves the boy with a person who doesn’t know how to operate the apparatus — he was given cursory instruction. Result is kid gets fed in one hour what normally would take eight hours. Result is the kid is dead. And died horribly. No criminal charges are filed. Only his license to provide foster care was revoked. Another child under his care had died before this incident. Ron’s keeping tabs on the guy. His latest information puts him in Mexico — “Working in orphanages or some kind of foster-care employment there.”

I went with Agents Lederle and Munch one day to Children’s Hospital, to the ward where children are taken if they are abused, molested, raped. Lederle seems to have a particularly good rapport with the people here. He was showing Munch the ropes, places, procedures. He introduced us to a doctor, some nurses, and a forensic interview specialist, a person trained specifically to interview children about what has happened to them. I looked into a room marked Child Protection Examining Room 1. Near the examining table I noticed a large medical instrument I’d never seen before. It’s called a colposcope, and it’s used for examining and photographing even minute damage inside, say, a child’s anus or vagina. (Note: I’m glad we have tools like this to prove sexual abuse in children, but it makes me sick when I think that we must have them.)

Not long after this I went with Agent Ruth Hinzman to meet Floyd Richardson, senior social work supervisor with Child Protective Services at the Children’s Services Bureau, which is part of the county Health and Human Services Agency. How the Family Protection Unit works with the people at Children’s Hospital and Floyd and his colleagues is one of the things that makes this unit different from others. Agent Hinzman said at one point, “I consider myself a social worker with a gun.” Another time she said, “I’ve cleaned up vomit. I’ve cooked breakfast for a man who couldn’t do it for himself. It’s not in my job description, but I do it.” Floyd said he sometimes had to act like a police officer, but without a gun. Most crimes don’t involve social workers. Normally, a crime happens, somebody is arrested, tried, found guilty, or acquitted. When the issue is child abuse or neglect it’s extremely complicated, and to take a child away from parents “you need proof that the child is endangered — an equivalent amount of proof to prove murder — danger for the child is the guideline,” Richardson said when I asked, “Where’s the line?”

Floyd Richardson is in his late 50s and has been a social worker for 27 years. He’s of average height, carries a little extra belly, and wears a substantial mustache. At the nape he wears his close-cropped hair a little longer — my guess is he puts it in a tiny ponytail when not at work. Floyd is legendary among social workers and cops in the San Diego area — for his concern and involvement with children, both on the job and with track-and-field events and in the martial arts. He’s also highly regarded for his concern about the training and safety of social workers. He’d recently received the Jay Hoxie Award for “a compassionate commitment to children.” He didn’t tell me that, Ruth did. I thought: When all is said and done, when it’s time to go wherever we go when we die, that would be a pretty good quote, honestly earned, carved on anybody’s stone. A little later I learned he also holds a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do, which explained why he moved with such ease and grace. It also seemed like a good skill to have in his line of work.

The first Society for the Protection of Children was established in New York City in 1875. A child, Mary Ellen Wilson, was brutally abused by her caretaker. A citizen, unable to get help for her from any public agencies, convinced the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals (already well established) to provide assistance because Mary, as a human, was a member of the animal kingdom. The aspca did assist her, and soon thereafter legislation was passed to protect all abused and neglected children. By the 1920s there were 250 private, nonprofit groups involved in providing assistance for families and protection through the courts for children. During the 1960s a great deal of development occurred in the country’s response to the maltreatment of children. A major step was created when “reporting laws” were passed in every state, meaning that every citizen was mandated to report child neglect or abuse — not just doctors, teachers, cops, but you, me, every citizen. (Note: I hope, to whatever superior life-forms that may be watching us, that those laws make us look a little better, a little more civilized, a little less normally human, and a little more properly human.)

On Floyd Richardson’s first day on the job — wearing a tie, carrying a clipboard — he’s sent to the waiting room by his supervisor to talk to a woman who had gone to the police first and from there was sent to social services. She was agitated and, Floyd figured, loaded. There was some problem with her grandkids, her daughter. The more she talked the more agitated, anxious, she became, until she knocked off the table her huge purse. Out spilled a large quantity of pills and a fully loaded .357 magnum. Floyd grabbed the gun and emptied it. “Graduate school did not prepare me for that,” he said. He told me 300 to 400 social workers are assaulted each year nationally. In Sacramento not long ago a man shot a social worker and gave the gun to another social worker on the scene. In L.A. a social worker was assaulted, kidnapped, stabbed. It turned out it was arranged by one of her clients, a 14-year-old girl. Floyd gave me a document detailing dozens of other specific incidents and which contains a list of recommendations, ten of them about training and safety issues. Number 7 struck me: “Child Protective Services workers need training and guidance on steps that can be taken to shield their own families from vengeful actions by distraught clients. In small communities where it is easy to identify and locate a worker’s family, training and information should be available to the worker’s spouse and children.”

I asked how the process of determining if a child is in danger begins. In a nutshell, a call comes in on the hot line. So-and-So is beating, abusing a child. This referral is cross reported to the cops. The cops check it out and see if any laws are broken. The social worker checks it out and determines if the child is in danger. “Children get hurt without the law being broken…sometimes,” Floyd said, and added, “It’s black-and-white for the cops, gray for us. A social worker needs an education, life experience, and a philosophy to fall back on, an idea of what things should be.” I asked him how things have changed since the ’70s. “In those days sometimes you could help change things just by mere presence. People were more afraid of social workers than cops. It used to be a stigma, now it’s no big deal.”

Who else, except for a judge, has to make calls like this on a regular basis — whether a child stays with a parent or is removed from the home? And if he stays is he safe? I kept thinking about the difficulty of that decision, what must go on in his mind and his heart every time he has to make that call. (Note: When a child is removed from a home it is not necessarily permanent. In spring 1999 the Union-Tribune published an excellent series of articles outlining the process.) I asked Floyd about these decisions. “Torn” was a verb he used a few times. He gave me a “for example”: A child 10 to 12 is removed from the home. At age 18 he goes home to family: “He’s alive, earlier he couldn’t protect himself, now he can.” And then he said: “The best place for a child is in the home if the home is safe. You don’t get a lot putting a child in an institution.”

Floyd has assembled something called the Child Abuse Manual. Part of it relates to burns and how to tell the difference between an accidental burn from one inflicted upon a child deliberately. Burning children by immersing them in scalding water is not unusual, probably because people think they can get away with it, that it’s easier to claim the injury an accident. One illustration in the manual describes what is called “the doughnut.” If a child, say, is accidentally set in a tub of water too hot for it, the child screams and the adult, although guilty of being an idiot for not testing the water, snatches the child right out. The burn on the child’s bum would show a fairly small doughnut hole — he won’t be burned as much around the anus. If a child is deliberately put in scalding water and held there or pushed down, that doughnut hole will be squashed, with a larger circumference. San Diego boasts one of the country’s leading experts on burns, Dr. Seth Asser, of California Children’s Services, who has helped solve many cases with his knowledge of burns and how they get inflicted upon children.

Ruth told me about a case where a boyfriend taking care of a girlfriend’s baby placed the baby in scalding water and left the room “to do a few things.” The baby screams and screams. The guy comes back. The baby’s unconscious. The water is still too hot — too hot for him to put his hands in it to remove the baby! The baby died. The man, I hope, is going to fry.

The handbook includes all sorts of things you don’t want to think about: “spiral” fractures, a type of fracture that occurs when a child’s arm is twisted until it breaks, splinters. This is just about the only way this kind of fracture happens.

I asked Floyd what he did to get away from his work. “Certain movies you don’t see. TV programs. Can’t really turn it off but can, kind of… I watch a lot of Disney. Always that type. I officiate track-and-field events. Martial arts.” I asked him how he dealt with potential violence: “Cautiously.” And I needed to know what kept him going, seeing what he sees, knowing what he knows. He said, “I know I absolutely made a difference in a child’s life. Some things ugly are gonna happen. I know children are alive because of something I did. I run into a woman in the market, 20 or so years old. She doesn’t recognize me. I recognize her, now all grown up, taking care of herself. She’s alive.”

Just about every member of the Family Protection Unit said a similar thing when I asked them the same question: “There are kids walking around today who wouldn’t be alive.” And fewer kids forever damaged by being molested, abused, raped.

I went with Agents Lederle, Pike, and Fobes while they arrested a man for molesting his girlfriend’s child. The child of one of his girlfriends. They arrested him at his and his wife’s house. Ron explained to me that, in this case, because they didn’t have a warrant for his arrest the man needed to agree to step outside his house. Once he’s outside his house he can be, with just cause, arrested. Ron used the word “ruse” in telling me that often cops say things to suspects that are not true. Ruth used the word, tongue in cheek, “fibs.” She gave me an example: A patrol officer knocks on a guy’s door and tells him his car was broken into and he needs to come outside to identify his property. Surprise! If you don’t take the bait? Some cops wait and make sure you don’t leave. Other cops go get a warrant. Then they come back and arrest you in your house. Kevin Pike said, “We tell ’em (during interrogations) all sorts of things, we got this, we got DNA, we got a witness, etc.” (Note: If I’m a dumb bad guy reading this right now I’m whining, “That’s not fair, the cops can lie to me, waaah, that’s not fair…”) Ron goes to the door with Kevin. I stay with Steve, who watches the back. Ron notices the guy’s wife inside when he answers the door and, figuring he doesn’t want his wife to hear what’s going on, asks him if he’d mind stepping out onto the patio for “just a second, I only have a few questions.” Next thing the guy knows he’s putting his hands behind his back, click-click, and he’s off to jail.

A tool they use and consider more reliable than polygraph testing is called voice stress analysis. A subject is asked questions over the phone and the machine can, essentially, read lies in a voice. One agent claimed it was 98 percent accurate. Although its results, like a polygraph, can’t be used in court, it helps cops in their investigations. They also use a technique called “a controlled phone call.” I won’t go into this in any detail but here’s a tip: If you’ve date-raped someone, for example, and she calls you and wants to discuss the incident, go right ahead and converse honestly with her.

Another kind of abuse, of elderly people, is a problem that’s being aggressively addressed in San Diego County by both police and social services. If you watch local San Diego television you’ve noticed a great number of public service announcements about elder abuse — as in neglect, physical abuse, and what is becoming more and more prevalent, “fiduciary abuse,” i.e., ripping off old people, most commonly done by relatives who have control of an older person’s money and spend it on themselves.

Sometimes, it occurs to me, certain methods of punishment we’ve banned because they might be “cruel and unusual” could be applied by wise and fair judges. In some places judges are trying what is usually known as “alternative sentencing.” How about this: if a person is convicted, by a jury of his peers, of stealing from an old person and the result is serious deprivation for that senior citizen, then that yahoo (after restitution) must wear a sign around his neck for a certain period saying something like: OUT OF GREED AND SELFISHNESS I STOLE FROM MY 87-YEAR-OLD MOTHER. MAY SHE AND MY FELLOW CITIZENS FORGIVE ME.

I guess that is a little unusual, but stealing from or abusing an old and vulnerable person is odious and worse than “unusual,” and wearing a signboard admitting that crime is not half as cruel as the crime itself.

Rape, child abuse and molestation, elder abuse: ugly crimes. A few of the people in the Family Protection Unit said to me things like “After working here, property crimes, car theft, don’t seem so important. That’s what insurance is for.” The majority of the crimes investigated here don’t end with the act. A child molested has a much greater chance of becoming a molester as an adult. The emotional and psychological damage (even if justice is done to the guilty party) is lifelong. A rape victim, even if she sees a cell door close for many years on her attacker, even if she has the best therapy in the world, is forever affected. What kind of feeling must an older person have knowing that she brought into the world the person who stole everything she had saved to live her later years with some dignity?

I have a picture of Steve Fobes and John Munch I took on my last day at the Family Protection Unit. In office banter the day before, Agent Munch said he’d been somewhat of a wild boy as a teenager. When he turned 18 his father changed the locks on him and after a few months sleeping on friends’ couches and in garages, he saw the light. A few years later he was at the police academy. Both were on the way out the back door when I asked them to hold a second for a picture. Fobes was bouncing on the balls of his feet a little — he wanted to get going. Maybe they were off to bust the date-rape yahoos. He’s wearing a suit and tie. Either he was on his way to court or he wanted to look particularly sharp when arresting someone. Munch was tieless for the first time since he came to the unit, wearing a gray shirt. They’re smiling sweetly. They had places to go, people to see. They had work to do.

If you hurt or neglect or molest children, if you rape, if you hurt and steal from elderly people and you live in Chula Vista, the people of the Family Protection Unit would like to meet you. In fact, they will meet you, sooner or later. They will reach out with their long arms and gather you in and, if they have the evidence they need, they will pass you on to other people (judge and jury) who, if they find you guilty, will put you in a place where you will not be safe. For a long, long time. If you do these kinds of crimes in Chula Vista here again is the list of people who will be knocking on your door: Agents Collum, Fobes, Hinzman, Lederle, Munch, Pike. And when they’re back from vacation: Agent Brown and Sgt. Peltekian. Wendy won’t be at your door, but she’ll be in the office and she’ll never lose your file. If you do not do these kinds of crimes, or if you have a child or an older parent, or if you know a child or an elderly person, or if you once were a child and hope to be an older person, if you know someone who has been a rape victim, if you are a citizen with one dollop of gratitude, then it’s to these cops, these social workers and hospital personnel, that you might say: Thanks for doing what you do.

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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.”

Maybe this is not high narrative, but it sure tells the story. I’ve read many literary novels I’ve almost completely forgotten. This narrative I will never forget.

A cop for eight years, Phil Collum is 30. Because the younger officers at the police academy graduate when they’re in their early 20s, it’s possible to be a seasoned veteran by 30 or so. He’s a San Diego native and attended UC Santa Cruz. Tall and lean, he runs “at least twice a day” and works out religiously as well. He goes to bed about 8:30 at night and gets up at 4:00 a.m. He describes himself as one of the department’s few real “computer geeks.”

He and his colleagues, all of whom (but for two who were on vacation) you will meet, see and smell things like the above on a more or less regular basis; that is, when they’re not dealing with child molestation, rape, people beating up and robbing old people, etc. Not a happy job. But not one, either, without its rewards.

Agent Collum told me about a rape case he’d worked on. A man attacked a woman, beat her, and raped her with a foreign object in a ditch near her home. This was one of the rare “stranger” rapes — the vast majority of rapes are done by someone who knows the victim. Somehow, she managed to talk the rapist into taking her back to her apartment, where she knew, and he did not, that her roommates were home. She escaped by screaming bloody murder the second she opened the door. Collum admired her courage and developed a good rapport with her during the investigation and through the rapist’s trial. He was arrested only minutes after fleeing. She made an excellent witness. The guy got 31 years to life. He has to do at least 24. That’s one of the rewards. Collum called it “the one strike and you’re out law — for real offensive offences.”

Agent Collum was the second man on the scene at the notorious Jenny Rojas murder case. He said all during the investigation he was OK, but at the trial, on the stand, when he had to look at pictures of the murdered child, he nearly broke down: “Well, it’s been emotionally difficult since then. Images that I’ll never forget.”

One of the things Collum was doing on top of his regular police work (each officer in the unit averages about 47 cases a month) was writing up a grant proposal to get some more computers for the unit. I thought: Cops have to apply for grants to buy equipment? Poets should apply for grants (and not get them — it makes them tougher), maybe scientists, graduate students…but not cops, the goddamn city or state should just give them what they need! Then I thought: No, I forgot, all the money goes to teachers and social workers. I was working up a little irony lather.

Ruth Hinzman, 41, could pass easily for someone a half dozen years younger. She is a 15-year police veteran and with the Family Protection Unit 4 years, 2 in an earlier tour and 2 and counting now. Like all officers, she spent several years on patrol. She’s also worked traffic and property crimes. She has brown hair, soft brown eyes, and is very attractive. Let me put it this way: if she worked a different unit and weren’t married, I might turn into one of those guys who confesses to every crime he reads about in the papers — if they let me confess to her. She has a 7-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and was recently remarried. Around the unit she has the reputation of being a disarming and expert interrogator. She once got a guy to confess to rape by saying to him things like, “You know, I don’t consider what you did as rape, rape is a very harsh word. I saw how that girl was dressed — she probably wanted it. I’d call what you did more like vaginal trespassing.” Guys says, “Yeah, that’s what it was, trespassing.” He’s thinking — “Trespassing, that’s only a minor misdemeanor. Hell, I’ll cop to that rather than rape.” Too late, sucker, you already confessed to a felony, rape. Vaginal trespassing is rape. Adios, you’re on your way to a bid in state prison. Ruth will say to a guy, “I can see why she [a 12-year-old] would want to have sex with you, you’re a good-looking, sexy guy and she came on to you, right?” The macho dork’s (Ruth’s most common word for offenders) ego kicks in and he admits it: “Sure, I fucked her brains out, she loved it.” Got you, moron. Being stupid isn’t a crime, but being stupid and a rapist is. Sex with a 12-year-old is rape. (Note: I never heard these cops, or any others for that matter, use the word “perp.” Most often offenders were referred to as knuckleheads, bad guys, yahoos, and by a few other names not fit for family newspapers.)

Ruth was the only female agent in the unit at this time. Another, Sgt. Laura Colson, who was spoken of with great respect, had recently left to take a job as investigator for the district attorney in San Diego. I assumed, since many of the victims this unit deals with are children and women, that victims (particularly after a rape) might be much more comfortable talking to a female cop. I didn’t want to stereotype, and each time I heard one of the male cops speak to a woman or child victim, they did so with gentleness, courtesy, and patience. I asked Ruth about this. She said she tended to make people in general feel comfortable and that victims, particularly rape victims, often request to talk to a female officer about what happened to them. If she’s not available another female officer will be.

I also asked Ruth, as I asked most of the other officers with children, if working in this unit affects how they raise their own kids. They all used the word “paranoid.” All of them. And to each I said, “I’m sure you don’t mean that in the clinical sense.” What they meant was, they are supervigilant. She said, “Say we go to Target and my daughter wants to look at Barbies. I stand there with her. I’m not gonna leave her alone. If I were a pedophile, that’s where I’d be looking for victims.”

Later she told a joke: Man comes home to find his wife enraged and throwing all his stuff out of the house onto the lawn, etc., screams at him, “You sonofabitch, you bastard, I just found out you’re a pedophile!” Man says, “Why, sweetie, that’s a very big word — pedophile — for a ten-year-old girl to know.” (Note: Lest the reader’s irony meter is off, or my timing: the joke does not make fun of pedophilia, it makes fun of some men’s notion that sex with children is an acceptable thing.)

One of the more common, ugly, and frustrating crimes the Family Protection Unit investigates is date rape, sometimes called acquaintance rape. This most often involves minors, girls 12 to 16, say. The suspects are usually young men, 18 to early 20s. “The letter of the law is clear: If a woman says no, the action stops,” Ruth said. But there is sometimes a sense of ambivalence. “A girl never deserves it, and girls and women need to do what we can to protect ourselves. We need to be cautious of our actions and our surroundings. We need to insure we don’t do anything that could lead to our victimization.” She added, “The way I was brought up you don’t get yourself in a situation you can’t get out of.” Most of the time alcohol is involved. And, in recent years, a drug called Rohypnol — “roofies,” on the street — is used by men to knock women unconscious, after which they rape them. (No one had heard of a case where a man was given Rohypnol and raped.) It’s a drug given to patients about to undergo major surgeries. (Note: Who, or what, in our psyches, in our culture, in the darkest pits of our souls, is it that allows a man, young or old, to believe sex with an unconscious woman could in any way be pleasurable or satisfying? I ask of Freudians: Does this indicate that necrophilia is really a much more common deviancy than previously thought?)

But rape is not about sex; no matter what the situation, it’s not about sex.

Most often roofies are slipped, like a Mickey, into a girl’s drink. Ruth mentioned one young woman who took Rohypnol willingly to see what would happen. She’d also been drinking. She asked the boys she was with, whom she’d just recently met, to watch out for her and not let anyone take advantage of her. What did the boys do when she went under? You guessed it — they raped her. Wonder why this crime is frustrating and very difficult to prosecute?

I heard a story later about a case Agent Pike (you’ll meet him soon) worked. A 19-year-old male was picking up (using Daddy’s Caddy) girls 12 to 15, taking them home (where he had his own apartment in the garage at his parent’s house, affording him some privacy), and after giving them drugs and/or alcohol, he would rape them, often inviting a few pals to join in the fun. There were more than a dozen victims. (Note: I have a 13-year-old daughter. If someone did that to her, it would behoove me to disembowel that person and strangle him with his own intestines. If I had a son and he did that to someone else, my shame would be unbearable.) He also videotaped these sessions, sometimes with, sometimes without, the girl’s knowledge. The guy pleaded out, got only a year of local jail time (a lot easier to do than state prison time), served part of it, and walked. He did become, as does everyone convicted of a sex crime in California, what’s called a 290 registrant. Meaning he has to register with his local police department, inform them of the slightest move (“If you move even across the hall on the same floor, you have to come in and tell us,” Pike said to one man who came in). If you move to California from out of state you have to register. This gives some satisfaction to cops who bust their asses to bust a guy like the 19-year-old above who more or less got off scot-free: “At least he has to be a 290 registrant for the rest of his life.” Legislation is in the works to make it mandatory for all convicted sex offenders to provide DNA samples for a national data bank.

The Family Protection Unit office is announced by one of those ubiquitous signs stamped in white on plastic meant to look like wood: Sex Crimes, it says, and just below that, Child Abuse. You take a left past a door with a bright red Biohazard sign on it (I never asked) and the first thing you run into is a big pink pig, then a cow (wearing a cowboy hat), a bear (wearing a red cap), and a duck. There are many more stuffed animals here, dozens of them (donated, mostly by cops), and scattered throughout the office too. Lying across five staplers on top of a file cabinet: a languorous bunny. There are also a few shelves of blankets and colorful quilts. Agent Collum opened a drawer filled with baby food and diapers. And many more drawings by kids than normal in an office place. There’s one next to Collum’s desk: a river and mountain and forest with “Hi Phil!” written on it. The kid, who was being interviewed by Child Protective Services workers, knew that Phil was watching through a two-way mirror (children are informed of this when they’re interviewed) and he was goofing with him. These drawings give the room some color, which is good because it’s crowded, cluttered, low-ceilinged, and its paint a little dusty.

The agents each have a desk, some partially closed off cubicle-style, all very close together, and the place is noisy, with talk and phones. When several people were in the office I usually sat at the end of a table that jutted out to just about the center of the room. Questions, comments, wisecracks fly around the room. Somebody asks another agent if he speaks Spanish. “Only enough to get my face slapped,” he says. One agent would ask a question of another or just throw it out to the room: What’s his name that did this or that, or what’s new with this case? Or Ruth stands up and reads a postcard from the unit’s Sergeant, Tro Peltekian, who’s on vacation with his family in London. (Note: I interviewed a few of the agents in Peltekian’s small office in the rear of the main room because it was quieter. On his desk was a small fountain with some stones in it, dry in his absence and lacking the soothing sounds it provides; a box of tissues; and a large bottle of Tums.) Kevin Pike is asking Phil for some computer help. An officer comes in from another unit with a question. An officer stops by to say hello or to grab a cookie or a piece of cake somebody brought in. The goodies occupied the other end of the table where I usually sat. Again, breaking stereotype, it wasn’t the women in the office — Ruth and Wendy (whom you will meet presently) — who always brought in food. Once there was a plate of sliced-up skinless chicken breast. Or was it some kind of sushi thing? Everybody knew it was Phil Collum who brought that. Collum, as the unit’s health nut, gets razzed if he eats a cookie or a piece of cake. One day, Agent Munch (he, too, you will meet soon) was going to have lunch with his grandmother, who lived only a few blocks away. She asked him if he wanted a tuna or a liver sandwich. Some merriment was made over those culinary options.

Often, if there’s a particular question about a particular case, or name, or date, it’s not one of the agents who answers but Wendy Manzo, the unit’s administrative secretary, who plays an important role on this team though she’s not a sworn officer. She’s a zaftig strawberry blonde with a huge heart, exceptional memory for detail, and the only person in the office who speaks fluent Spanish. Wendy has three children, a 14-year-old son and daughters 13 and 11. As a survivor of domestic violence herself, Wendy, now divorced from the father of her children and the man who beat her, can empathize with women in this situation. She understands why women stay with a man long after they know the relationship is abusive and dangerous — fear: of more violence, of poverty, of shame, fear that they may deserve it or are to blame. The last straw and the last beating she took from her ex-husband happened during a pregnancy. Her three-year-old was watching.

Her official duties at the Family Protection Unit include answering phones, getting information to Child Protective Services, transcribing arrest reports, etc. Unofficially, she acts as translator, counselor to victims and her colleagues, information keeper (“I do pay attention”) and sifter, and general Big Heart. After ten years raising her children (who accuse her of being “paranoid” about their safety) alone, she’s been in a new relationship for the past year or so. She said it took her a while to get used to a man who is gentle, thoughtful, and caring.

It’s true that almost all of the bad guys this unit deals with are guys, men. Women abuse and neglect children but very rarely rape or sexually abuse them. When these cases do happen they seem to get a lot more attention. The recent LeTourneau case, for example. She was convicted of sleeping with and having a child by her 13-year-old student. She got out on parole, slept with him again, was caught, got pregnant again, and went back to the can. Is it because these cases are so rare and unusual that they get so much publicity, or might there be other reasons too?

One kind of child abuse, recently given a name, Munchausen syndrome by proxy, is particularly disturbing. This is when a mother (men commit these crimes too but in this case are in the minority) deliberately makes or keeps a child sick in order to get attention, sympathy, and even money for herself. In one infamous case, a woman whose child was chronically sick for years was kept so by the woman’s putting things like potting soil or coffee grinds into the child’s IV unit. Before it was learned what was really going on, the woman and her child had been picked up by the media as a tragic human-interest story — poor, dedicated, single mother bravely fighting the hmos and the medical establishment to get proper care and treatment for her child. The public sent her thousands of dollars in donations. Some people have been caught, on videotape, lying across their children’s bodies, nearly smothering them (you see their little legs kicking desperately), and then calling the nurse or doctor in and saying, “See, my child is having trouble breathing, or having a seizure.”

Who but us is there to pray for us? The fiction writer with the best and most warped imagination in the world could not make up something like this.

My first day at the Family Protection Unit was also the first day in this unit for John Munch, a 29-year-old officer, newly promoted to agent, who had applied for an opening in this unit and got it. Munch is about six feet tall, sandy-haired, and almost handsome enough to play a cop on TV if he weren’t a real cop and could act. He’s married and has a three-month-old baby. When he told me this I said that he didn’t look tired enough for a man with a baby. He told me his wife had been cutting him a little slack re nighttime baby care and was letting him sleep on the couch for a few nights. He then remarked that this is the only time sleeping on the couch is a good thing. Even though he was the new guy here, Agent Munch (though Ruth was a close second) turned out to be the office wiseacre and satirical wit. He said to a suspect he was interrogating, “We don’t do this for shits and giggles.”

His first weekend at the Family Protection Unit he was on call, meaning if a crime occurred off-hours that needed an investigator’s immediate attention, he showed up. The call came about midnight Sunday. Saturday his baby had a rough night and this time he shared the duties. The next night he and his wife had gone to her high school reunion and he’d been asleep about an hour when the phone rang. He worked traffic for a few years — if his phone rang in the middle of the night then “I knew somebody was dead.”

When I saw him Monday morning he looked more tired than even a new parent usually does. He was reviewing a videotape of his interview with a victim who had been held against her will and forced to perform copulation on her boyfriend for about five hours. It was 3:00 a.m. Agent Munch questioned the woman with patience and great detail. The story was not without its oddities. For example, the suspect had some serious wood problems: he couldn’t get it up while he was forcing her to do this. He was popping porno videos in the vcr at the same time but they didn’t seem to help. (Note: The victim, in her interview, said they were hard-core porno films. During the alleged knucklehead’s — Munch’s favorite term for a bad guy — interrogation he said one video was “some kind of women-in-prison movie that was hers” and the other was “What was the name of it? A recent major motion picture.”) Where lies the truth? Sometimes, but not always, in the middle.

With the suspect, Munch wasn’t as patient and gentle and seemed a little more tired — it was 5:00 a.m. Occasionally, he seemed somewhat confused, asked the guy “help me out a little here.” The guy had priors for sexual assault and was also on probation for an involvement with a crystal meth operation. Munch was very tired but was also deking the guy a little — he knew the suspect knew (he told him) he was new to this beat, he knew the guy was very savvy. My hunch is Munch was doing a little Columbo number on the guy, i.e., Agent Munch can act, at least on the job. As we’ll find out, all of the agents have this skill to one degree or another. The suspect was hyper. He kept asking what he was charged with exactly, and when Munch told him (false imprisonment, forced oral cop, a few others) the suspect wanted to know the numbers for those crimes in the penal code — so he could look up what he might be facing, try to figure the odds, etc.

From both the victim and the suspect Munch learned there was another person on the scene, though not in the same room — a friend of the victim’s who wouldn’t leave because she was afraid for her. They were in a small house trailer and the witness was very close, heard a lot, looked in a few times. She heard some thumps “like somebody’s head knocking against a wall.” During one of these look-ins the victim mouthed the words “Call the cops,” and that’s what she did. Munch needed to talk to her and went to her place of work to do so. During this interview, which contradicted the suspect’s story and confirmed the victim’s, he learned that the suspect once allegedly held another woman friend of hers at knifepoint for a day and a half, during which he took photographs of her. She did not elaborate on the nature of the pictures, but a picture of this guy and his tastes was beginning to form in Agent Munch’s mind. Before talking to this witness, Munch wasn’t very optimistic about the case flying with the district attorney. He suspected that the victim ultimately wouldn’t press charges, which often happens. (And which did, too, in this case a few days later.) But this witness seemed reliable and said she’d be willing to testify. She was afraid of this guy and afraid for her friend.

Munch decided he might also arrest the guy for the knifepoint deal. He’d go to the jail and arrest him again tomorrow and I could come along. Since I am a lover of irony (it seems to me one of the few defenses in a hypocritical and insane world), I liked that invitation. I’ve heard of people being arrested while already in jail or prison, but I wondered how it actually worked. Did you walk up to a guy’s cell and tell him through the bars he’s under arrest and read him his rights? Does he get cuffed and then moved to the cell next door? Do you pull him out of the lunch line and read him his rights? He’s breaking up rocks in the yard and you say, “Hold that hammer a minute while I bust your ass”? What does a guy’s face look like when he’s already in jail and he gets arrested again?

When we got back to the Family Protection Unit, Munch ran this possibility by Agent Ron Lederle (who’s coming up soon), who advised him not to do it, at least at this time. I’m not sure who was more disappointed: Agent Munch or me.

On my first day at the Family Protection Unit I met Agent Steve Fobes, briefly. It was his day off, but he was in anyway “checking on something.” He wore shorts, T-shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap. He’s tall, dark-haired, in his early 40s, and has a bit of a baby face. So does Agent Munch, which he says helps him sometimes in interrogations. I only caught glimpses of Fobes for the next several days, but I heard plenty about him from his colleagues. “Like a dog on a pant leg,” Wendy said, describing how he works a case. “He just never gives up,” someone else said. The case he had now involved a 15-year-old girl viciously date raped (vaginally, anally, orally) a few days earlier by three young men, 18 to 19. “They tore her up pretty bad,” he said. The girl, who had drunk several shots of tequila and some beer, remembered very little of the attack. When she was taken to the hospital her blood alcohol level was 4.6, which should have killed her (the state record is 5.1, taken from a wino in L.A.). The legal limit is .08. The doctor at the emergency room said she had a 50-50 chance. She lived. Steve was already pretty sure he knew who the guys were, but he didn’t have enough yet to arrest them. He needed more witnesses who not only put them at the scene but also saw them entering or leaving the room where the girl was raped. I went with him and Agent Kevin Pike, 44, father of five kids and an 11-year veteran of the police department, to look for one particular witness.

Pike didn’t go to the academy until he was 33 — before that he worked for many years for Chula Vista Recreation, in some of the roughest parts of town, and as a result knew a huge number of people, two and three generations, often, of families, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. His knowledge of the city and so many of its people is very useful sometimes — when he talked a huge, 300-pound man out of fighting another cop by saying, “Hey, it’s me, Kevin, you know me, calm down, calm down” — and sometimes a pain in the ass, like when other cops come up to him and say, “I just busted So-and-So and he says he’s a pal of yours.” Pike said one woman even told another cop she was his sister, and “I don’t even have a sister.” Agent Pike is built along the lines of a bulldog, wears a brush cut, and in his younger days was a hot-shot basketball player. He’s not particularly tall so I said to him, “You must have had a good outside shot.” He smiled a little: “Sure did.”

They knew the witness was at the scene, the witness knew they wanted to talk to her, but she was proving elusive, they both thought deliberately so. Something funny was going on that neither of them could put a finger on, but something funny was going on. We went to one address. She no longer lived there. We went to a few other places. Nada. We went to another place. A woman answered. I could see the legs of someone wearing jeans and sneakers inside, sitting on the floor watching TV. They got the address of the potential witness’s mother and stepfather. When we got in the car Fobes said to Pike, “That was one of the guys,” meaning jeans and sneakers. Meaning one of the alleged rapists. The guy already knew he was a suspect. Both agents were happy (though they did not speak to him) to remind him of their continued interest in the case.

I noticed that every time we approached a house or apartment door, Kevin would reach back with his right hand and just barely touch the bottom of his holster. (I never saw a shoulder holster — they all wore their weapons on their hips.) I meant to ask him if he was aware of this but never did. They always stood to the side after ringing a doorbell. Steve said it was because if someone looked through the peephole and saw it was a cop, they might not answer the door. I’m sure, also, because there’s always the possibility some bullets or buckshot will blast through the door — even on seemingly low-risk visits like these.

Forty-two cops were murdered in the United States in 1999, 61 in 1998, all killed with guns save one who was killed by a car. It’s always there, in the backs of their minds. One afternoon Agent Munch blew up then popped his sandwich bag. “Shots fired! Shots fired!” he said with mock alarm. And then, “That’s a little cop humor.”

When they went to the next house they spoke to the girl’s stepfather, who happened to be an attorney. After saying the girl wasn’t home and that he’d rather the girl’s mother not talk to them, Steve and Kevin told him (as they’d been telling everyone) that she wasn’t in any trouble, that they just needed to talk to her. Maybe she heard cops were all over looking for her. Maybe she figured it was time to tell what she knew, maybe her stepfather urged her to after talking with Fobes and Pike and getting the sense these guys are not going away so you might as well go in there and get it over with. Not long afterward she was sitting in the lobby of the police department. I don’t know what happened to this case, but I’ll tell you what: they didn’t let go.

All of these cops are driven, are pit bulls when it comes to their work. Steve Fobes, then, is a wolverine. “I won’t let them out-think me,” he said. When he knows something is off, something isn’t jibing with somebody’s story, “The hair on the back of my neck just stands up.” He says sometimes it’s like being a parent — “How does Mom know what she knows? She just knows.” He, too, is very protective of his own children. His son plays baseball and Steve insists he wear his cap bill-forward, no other way. Why? Because certain gangs wear their hats at certain angles — he doesn’t want his kid, even for a moment, even from a distance, to be mistaken for a gang member. That’s the hat rule. He’s been on the trail for several months of one guy who killed a two-year-old. “It’s just a matter of time,” he said, “just a matter of time — we’ve got so many organizations helping out on this.” It’s easy to tell: Nothing personal (or is it a little for each of them? most are parents!) but Agent Fobes wants this guy bad.

Ron Lederle, another agent in the unit, has 20 years in law enforcement and the most experience in the Family Protection Unit — he was here for 4 years earlier and is now in the second year of another 4-year tour.

Officers in the Chula Vista Police Department work patrol for several years after they graduate from the academy, and then as they pass tests and openings occur, they can be promoted to agent (which is equivalent and more or less synonymous with the rank of detective) and serve for fours years in one unit and then rotate back to patrol (but still with the rank of agent and with wider duties than regular patrol) until they move again to another investigative unit.

Lederle spent his first five years as a cop with the Coronado Police Department. He said, “That was a whole different ball game there, like Mayberry compared to New York City.” He’s always impeccably dressed, in his early 40s, wears his graying hair straight back, sports a neat brush mustache, and is fairly recently divorced, with a 16-year-old son. When he spoke of his son, whom he sees six days a week, I saw in his eyes the pain of the divorce itself and the pain he knows it caused his family. Talking of his son is also when his eyes light with joy. At one point, he handed me a poem he’d written. It’s about a young girl in the hospital in a coma after massive head injuries. The poem is in metrical quatrains and the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. It’s heartfelt and compassionate. He’s not ready to quit his day job and make a living on the poetry circuit (everyone who has tried has starved anyway), but how many cops (or how many grown men, is more the point) do you think would have the guts, the heart, to write a poem like this?

One case that haunts Ron involved a special-needs kid in foster care. The kid was normal in most respects but had to be fed intravenously — he couldn’t digest food properly. At bedtime he gets hooked up to a machine that feeds him over eight hours. One night his caretaker decides to go out and leaves the boy with a person who doesn’t know how to operate the apparatus — he was given cursory instruction. Result is kid gets fed in one hour what normally would take eight hours. Result is the kid is dead. And died horribly. No criminal charges are filed. Only his license to provide foster care was revoked. Another child under his care had died before this incident. Ron’s keeping tabs on the guy. His latest information puts him in Mexico — “Working in orphanages or some kind of foster-care employment there.”

I went with Agents Lederle and Munch one day to Children’s Hospital, to the ward where children are taken if they are abused, molested, raped. Lederle seems to have a particularly good rapport with the people here. He was showing Munch the ropes, places, procedures. He introduced us to a doctor, some nurses, and a forensic interview specialist, a person trained specifically to interview children about what has happened to them. I looked into a room marked Child Protection Examining Room 1. Near the examining table I noticed a large medical instrument I’d never seen before. It’s called a colposcope, and it’s used for examining and photographing even minute damage inside, say, a child’s anus or vagina. (Note: I’m glad we have tools like this to prove sexual abuse in children, but it makes me sick when I think that we must have them.)

Not long after this I went with Agent Ruth Hinzman to meet Floyd Richardson, senior social work supervisor with Child Protective Services at the Children’s Services Bureau, which is part of the county Health and Human Services Agency. How the Family Protection Unit works with the people at Children’s Hospital and Floyd and his colleagues is one of the things that makes this unit different from others. Agent Hinzman said at one point, “I consider myself a social worker with a gun.” Another time she said, “I’ve cleaned up vomit. I’ve cooked breakfast for a man who couldn’t do it for himself. It’s not in my job description, but I do it.” Floyd said he sometimes had to act like a police officer, but without a gun. Most crimes don’t involve social workers. Normally, a crime happens, somebody is arrested, tried, found guilty, or acquitted. When the issue is child abuse or neglect it’s extremely complicated, and to take a child away from parents “you need proof that the child is endangered — an equivalent amount of proof to prove murder — danger for the child is the guideline,” Richardson said when I asked, “Where’s the line?”

Floyd Richardson is in his late 50s and has been a social worker for 27 years. He’s of average height, carries a little extra belly, and wears a substantial mustache. At the nape he wears his close-cropped hair a little longer — my guess is he puts it in a tiny ponytail when not at work. Floyd is legendary among social workers and cops in the San Diego area — for his concern and involvement with children, both on the job and with track-and-field events and in the martial arts. He’s also highly regarded for his concern about the training and safety of social workers. He’d recently received the Jay Hoxie Award for “a compassionate commitment to children.” He didn’t tell me that, Ruth did. I thought: When all is said and done, when it’s time to go wherever we go when we die, that would be a pretty good quote, honestly earned, carved on anybody’s stone. A little later I learned he also holds a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do, which explained why he moved with such ease and grace. It also seemed like a good skill to have in his line of work.

The first Society for the Protection of Children was established in New York City in 1875. A child, Mary Ellen Wilson, was brutally abused by her caretaker. A citizen, unable to get help for her from any public agencies, convinced the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals (already well established) to provide assistance because Mary, as a human, was a member of the animal kingdom. The aspca did assist her, and soon thereafter legislation was passed to protect all abused and neglected children. By the 1920s there were 250 private, nonprofit groups involved in providing assistance for families and protection through the courts for children. During the 1960s a great deal of development occurred in the country’s response to the maltreatment of children. A major step was created when “reporting laws” were passed in every state, meaning that every citizen was mandated to report child neglect or abuse — not just doctors, teachers, cops, but you, me, every citizen. (Note: I hope, to whatever superior life-forms that may be watching us, that those laws make us look a little better, a little more civilized, a little less normally human, and a little more properly human.)

On Floyd Richardson’s first day on the job — wearing a tie, carrying a clipboard — he’s sent to the waiting room by his supervisor to talk to a woman who had gone to the police first and from there was sent to social services. She was agitated and, Floyd figured, loaded. There was some problem with her grandkids, her daughter. The more she talked the more agitated, anxious, she became, until she knocked off the table her huge purse. Out spilled a large quantity of pills and a fully loaded .357 magnum. Floyd grabbed the gun and emptied it. “Graduate school did not prepare me for that,” he said. He told me 300 to 400 social workers are assaulted each year nationally. In Sacramento not long ago a man shot a social worker and gave the gun to another social worker on the scene. In L.A. a social worker was assaulted, kidnapped, stabbed. It turned out it was arranged by one of her clients, a 14-year-old girl. Floyd gave me a document detailing dozens of other specific incidents and which contains a list of recommendations, ten of them about training and safety issues. Number 7 struck me: “Child Protective Services workers need training and guidance on steps that can be taken to shield their own families from vengeful actions by distraught clients. In small communities where it is easy to identify and locate a worker’s family, training and information should be available to the worker’s spouse and children.”

I asked how the process of determining if a child is in danger begins. In a nutshell, a call comes in on the hot line. So-and-So is beating, abusing a child. This referral is cross reported to the cops. The cops check it out and see if any laws are broken. The social worker checks it out and determines if the child is in danger. “Children get hurt without the law being broken…sometimes,” Floyd said, and added, “It’s black-and-white for the cops, gray for us. A social worker needs an education, life experience, and a philosophy to fall back on, an idea of what things should be.” I asked him how things have changed since the ’70s. “In those days sometimes you could help change things just by mere presence. People were more afraid of social workers than cops. It used to be a stigma, now it’s no big deal.”

Who else, except for a judge, has to make calls like this on a regular basis — whether a child stays with a parent or is removed from the home? And if he stays is he safe? I kept thinking about the difficulty of that decision, what must go on in his mind and his heart every time he has to make that call. (Note: When a child is removed from a home it is not necessarily permanent. In spring 1999 the Union-Tribune published an excellent series of articles outlining the process.) I asked Floyd about these decisions. “Torn” was a verb he used a few times. He gave me a “for example”: A child 10 to 12 is removed from the home. At age 18 he goes home to family: “He’s alive, earlier he couldn’t protect himself, now he can.” And then he said: “The best place for a child is in the home if the home is safe. You don’t get a lot putting a child in an institution.”

Floyd has assembled something called the Child Abuse Manual. Part of it relates to burns and how to tell the difference between an accidental burn from one inflicted upon a child deliberately. Burning children by immersing them in scalding water is not unusual, probably because people think they can get away with it, that it’s easier to claim the injury an accident. One illustration in the manual describes what is called “the doughnut.” If a child, say, is accidentally set in a tub of water too hot for it, the child screams and the adult, although guilty of being an idiot for not testing the water, snatches the child right out. The burn on the child’s bum would show a fairly small doughnut hole — he won’t be burned as much around the anus. If a child is deliberately put in scalding water and held there or pushed down, that doughnut hole will be squashed, with a larger circumference. San Diego boasts one of the country’s leading experts on burns, Dr. Seth Asser, of California Children’s Services, who has helped solve many cases with his knowledge of burns and how they get inflicted upon children.

Ruth told me about a case where a boyfriend taking care of a girlfriend’s baby placed the baby in scalding water and left the room “to do a few things.” The baby screams and screams. The guy comes back. The baby’s unconscious. The water is still too hot — too hot for him to put his hands in it to remove the baby! The baby died. The man, I hope, is going to fry.

The handbook includes all sorts of things you don’t want to think about: “spiral” fractures, a type of fracture that occurs when a child’s arm is twisted until it breaks, splinters. This is just about the only way this kind of fracture happens.

I asked Floyd what he did to get away from his work. “Certain movies you don’t see. TV programs. Can’t really turn it off but can, kind of… I watch a lot of Disney. Always that type. I officiate track-and-field events. Martial arts.” I asked him how he dealt with potential violence: “Cautiously.” And I needed to know what kept him going, seeing what he sees, knowing what he knows. He said, “I know I absolutely made a difference in a child’s life. Some things ugly are gonna happen. I know children are alive because of something I did. I run into a woman in the market, 20 or so years old. She doesn’t recognize me. I recognize her, now all grown up, taking care of herself. She’s alive.”

Just about every member of the Family Protection Unit said a similar thing when I asked them the same question: “There are kids walking around today who wouldn’t be alive.” And fewer kids forever damaged by being molested, abused, raped.

I went with Agents Lederle, Pike, and Fobes while they arrested a man for molesting his girlfriend’s child. The child of one of his girlfriends. They arrested him at his and his wife’s house. Ron explained to me that, in this case, because they didn’t have a warrant for his arrest the man needed to agree to step outside his house. Once he’s outside his house he can be, with just cause, arrested. Ron used the word “ruse” in telling me that often cops say things to suspects that are not true. Ruth used the word, tongue in cheek, “fibs.” She gave me an example: A patrol officer knocks on a guy’s door and tells him his car was broken into and he needs to come outside to identify his property. Surprise! If you don’t take the bait? Some cops wait and make sure you don’t leave. Other cops go get a warrant. Then they come back and arrest you in your house. Kevin Pike said, “We tell ’em (during interrogations) all sorts of things, we got this, we got DNA, we got a witness, etc.” (Note: If I’m a dumb bad guy reading this right now I’m whining, “That’s not fair, the cops can lie to me, waaah, that’s not fair…”) Ron goes to the door with Kevin. I stay with Steve, who watches the back. Ron notices the guy’s wife inside when he answers the door and, figuring he doesn’t want his wife to hear what’s going on, asks him if he’d mind stepping out onto the patio for “just a second, I only have a few questions.” Next thing the guy knows he’s putting his hands behind his back, click-click, and he’s off to jail.

A tool they use and consider more reliable than polygraph testing is called voice stress analysis. A subject is asked questions over the phone and the machine can, essentially, read lies in a voice. One agent claimed it was 98 percent accurate. Although its results, like a polygraph, can’t be used in court, it helps cops in their investigations. They also use a technique called “a controlled phone call.” I won’t go into this in any detail but here’s a tip: If you’ve date-raped someone, for example, and she calls you and wants to discuss the incident, go right ahead and converse honestly with her.

Another kind of abuse, of elderly people, is a problem that’s being aggressively addressed in San Diego County by both police and social services. If you watch local San Diego television you’ve noticed a great number of public service announcements about elder abuse — as in neglect, physical abuse, and what is becoming more and more prevalent, “fiduciary abuse,” i.e., ripping off old people, most commonly done by relatives who have control of an older person’s money and spend it on themselves.

Sometimes, it occurs to me, certain methods of punishment we’ve banned because they might be “cruel and unusual” could be applied by wise and fair judges. In some places judges are trying what is usually known as “alternative sentencing.” How about this: if a person is convicted, by a jury of his peers, of stealing from an old person and the result is serious deprivation for that senior citizen, then that yahoo (after restitution) must wear a sign around his neck for a certain period saying something like: OUT OF GREED AND SELFISHNESS I STOLE FROM MY 87-YEAR-OLD MOTHER. MAY SHE AND MY FELLOW CITIZENS FORGIVE ME.

I guess that is a little unusual, but stealing from or abusing an old and vulnerable person is odious and worse than “unusual,” and wearing a signboard admitting that crime is not half as cruel as the crime itself.

Rape, child abuse and molestation, elder abuse: ugly crimes. A few of the people in the Family Protection Unit said to me things like “After working here, property crimes, car theft, don’t seem so important. That’s what insurance is for.” The majority of the crimes investigated here don’t end with the act. A child molested has a much greater chance of becoming a molester as an adult. The emotional and psychological damage (even if justice is done to the guilty party) is lifelong. A rape victim, even if she sees a cell door close for many years on her attacker, even if she has the best therapy in the world, is forever affected. What kind of feeling must an older person have knowing that she brought into the world the person who stole everything she had saved to live her later years with some dignity?

I have a picture of Steve Fobes and John Munch I took on my last day at the Family Protection Unit. In office banter the day before, Agent Munch said he’d been somewhat of a wild boy as a teenager. When he turned 18 his father changed the locks on him and after a few months sleeping on friends’ couches and in garages, he saw the light. A few years later he was at the police academy. Both were on the way out the back door when I asked them to hold a second for a picture. Fobes was bouncing on the balls of his feet a little — he wanted to get going. Maybe they were off to bust the date-rape yahoos. He’s wearing a suit and tie. Either he was on his way to court or he wanted to look particularly sharp when arresting someone. Munch was tieless for the first time since he came to the unit, wearing a gray shirt. They’re smiling sweetly. They had places to go, people to see. They had work to do.

If you hurt or neglect or molest children, if you rape, if you hurt and steal from elderly people and you live in Chula Vista, the people of the Family Protection Unit would like to meet you. In fact, they will meet you, sooner or later. They will reach out with their long arms and gather you in and, if they have the evidence they need, they will pass you on to other people (judge and jury) who, if they find you guilty, will put you in a place where you will not be safe. For a long, long time. If you do these kinds of crimes in Chula Vista here again is the list of people who will be knocking on your door: Agents Collum, Fobes, Hinzman, Lederle, Munch, Pike. And when they’re back from vacation: Agent Brown and Sgt. Peltekian. Wendy won’t be at your door, but she’ll be in the office and she’ll never lose your file. If you do not do these kinds of crimes, or if you have a child or an older parent, or if you know a child or an elderly person, or if you once were a child and hope to be an older person, if you know someone who has been a rape victim, if you are a citizen with one dollop of gratitude, then it’s to these cops, these social workers and hospital personnel, that you might say: Thanks for doing what you do.

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