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IN HOUSE SPRINGS, MO., NEAR ST. LOUIS, A 19-year-old mother is accused of breaking the ribs of her 5-month-old son to stop his crying. In Waukegan, Ill., a 21-year-old woman and her live-in boyfriend allegedly force her 4-year-old daughter to sleep in the shower and beat her severely with a belt and a wooden cutting board because the youngster won't stop wetting her bed. In New York City, a 27-year-old mother is charged with starving her 5-year-old son before tying him to a chair and fatally bludgeoning him with a broom handle.

Each of these cases made headlines in 1997, but they are the exceptions. Most of the 969,000 confirmed cases of child abuse last year, which typically began as reports from teachers, doctors, police, family members and neighbors, ended not on the 6 o'clock news, but as part of the caseload of thousands of social workers across the U.S. who are the last line of defense for America's children. In fact, the reality of child abuse in America is more disturbing than even the most lurid headlines suggest. Earlier this year the privately funded National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse issued an in-depth report on the problem, based on 1996 figures. Among the findings: Profound neglect involving children left unsupervised and uncared for, often by parents with drug and alcohol problems, was by far the most common form of abuse, comprising 60 percent of all cases. Physical abuse (23 percent) and sexual abuse (9 percent) occurred less often, but those numbers—representing more than 220,000 and 87,000 children, respectively—are chilling enough. In New York State alone, according to a separate report, 59 children were killed, 273 suffered broken bones and 5,927 received bruises and lacerations allegedly as the result of abuse in 1995, the last year for which figures are available.

It is undeniably a national nightmare, a problem that afflicts well-to-do and middle-class families as well as the poor. Still, experts say that poverty, the presence of only a single parent in the home and drug use can often serve as triggers for child abuse. "When you're overwhelmed with problems—not enough money, no job, how to feed the kids," says Joy Byers, communications director of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse in Chicago, "it can get so overwhelming that people sometimes will lash out at the ones who are most helpless." And it is a cycle that is all too often perpetuated: Those who have been abused as children frequently abuse their own offspring. Last month President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which puts an emphasis on protecting kids rather than keeping seriously dysfunctional families intact, and which experts hope will help break the cycle.

To get a clearer view of the problem, PEOPLE assigned 15 reporters and 13 photographers in eight locations around the country, both urban and rural, to record, over a 24-hour period, the activities of those most directly involved in the child-abuse issue—the victims and their families (whose names have been changed) and the professionals dedicated to helping them. It is these last who determine whether families remain together or whether, for their own safety, children must be removed from their homes. In nearly all cases, the choices are hard ones; caseloads are heavy, time is limited and budgets are tight—and mistakes, often fatal ones, can be made. In Chicago, for instance, 3-year-old Frank Torres was returned to his mother, whose husband had earlier been accused of breaking his leg, after she received counseling and all the child welfare workers involved agreed that the youngster would be safe. Just four months later, in August, his mother, Veronica Diaz, 21, was accused of drowning the boy. That child abuse is not a top priority, argues Michael Petit, deputy director of the Child Welfare League in Washington, is a disgrace. "We spend more than $30 billion on pizza annually," he points out. "Then look at the figures for child abuse—under $20 billion," which mostly goes for foster care and prevention. The 24 hours chosen for our survey, beginning on Friday, Sept. 19, had no special significance other than that it was typical, illuminating some deeply distressing human frailties—and offering some hopeful glimpses of strength and commitment.

MIAMI
Lawrence Scott sees more child abuse in one day than anyone should in a lifetime. Driving to his North Miami Beach office at 8 a.m., Scott, 30, one of 87 investigators in his local section of the Florida Department of Children and Families, has 15 case files waiting on his desk to be closed out, about the number he is assigned each week. Many involve children who have been severely beaten or forced to live in wretched conditions, which is why he often feels a sense of foreboding while heading to work. "That's when you're thinking, 'Oh, my God, what's going to happen today,' " says Scott, who earns a base salary of $24,500. "And at night you watch TV and wonder what you're going to see." Yet he also finds profound satisfaction in his work. "I really do love this job," says Scott, a former substitute teacher now in his third year at DCF. "Sometimes, when you sit back and really think about things, yeah, it gets to you. You say, 'How can people do this?' But it would be harder if you knew that nothing was going to be done." And the misery he deals with reminds him to be more patient with his own two daughters Jasmine, 6, and Lauren, 3. "It definitely helps me out as a father," he says.

BURLEY, IDAHO
Standing outside his comfortable seven-bedroom home in this rural potato-farming town (pop. 9,600), King West hollers, "I love you!" as his three adopted sons and three foster sons head for school in the family van. West, 55, a stocky, retired trucking supervisor, has been up since 5 a.m. but will have no time to catch his breath. Yesterday, Jack Qualman, a social worker with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, called West and his wife, Kathy 48, about taking a 6-year-old boy in need of a foster home. "Do you have an extra bed?" Qualman asked. Kathy's response was immediate: "What difference does it make? Of course we'll take him." Now King must make room for the newest of the scores of foster children, many of them abused, whom the couple have cared for over the years. "All we know is, Jack will be bringing the boy by sometime after 1, and that he'll probably be with us for the rest of the school year," says King, cleaning up the remnants of breakfast and loading the dishwasher. "We don't even know the boy's name yet, but that's typical." It's no coincidence that King spent part of his own youth in an orphanage. "I've always had a soft spot in my heart for kids going through rough times," he says. "I know what it's like not to have anybody."

MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZ.
At 9:28, Linda Gregg, 29, a caseworker at the state's Children's Protective Services office in Phoenix, is fielding a call, one of some 325 received each day. A grandmother is phoning to report her daughter for neglecting her own 8-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. "She parties all night and is too tired to get up in the morning," says the woman. Most days the 8-year-old can't rouse her mother to be taken to school, and the 1-year-old, who has had heart surgery, is being exposed to smoke, though his lungs are weak. "She smokes marijuana in the same room with him—crack, whatever," the grandmother says, adding that she has brought her grandson home with her after finding him bruised and unattended. "I went into the house this morning and [my daughter] was passed out," the grandmother reports. "I have him and she doesn't even know it."

MIAMI
The call rings out, "All rise!" in the courtroom of Juvenile Court Judge Cindy Lederman. It is 10:45, and she is already on her fourth case of the day. This one involves a 29-year-old mother with a history of abuse. In 1992 her 6-year-old son was taken from her after she was found responsible for burning his face with an iron and forcing him to kneel on a potato grater when he misbehaved. Later that year she gave birth to another son, who was immediately removed and sent to live with a relative in Canada. Today's hearing is to determine whether she should lose her younger son permanently. The outcome is never really in doubt. Not only has she failed to meet minimal court requirements such as attending parenting courses, but she has never tried to maintain contact with the boy. Nor is she in court today. After an hour of testimony, Lederman, 43, rules the boy's mother should have her parental rights terminated. Here there are none of the uncertainties and ambiguities that often surround abuse cases, and Lederman makes her decision with evident relief. "Thank God this child is in a stable relationship with a relative," she says.

MARICOPA COUNTY
At the CPS field office in Tolleson, about 10 miles west of Phoenix, Claudette Washington, 35, who has been a caseworker for 3½ years, is heading out into the desert on her first call after a morning briefing. She is scheduled to meet Samantha, the 25-year-old mother of three young children, whom she visited several days before, after a report that they were living in squalid conditions. "I'm going to ask the mother to do a urinalysis," says Washington. "I think she's a meth user." She means methamphetamine—speed—a highly addictive drug that can cause violent behavior. Washington is also concerned about a report from his school that Samantha's son Justin, 7, has told of being forced to stand in a corner at home for long periods and possibly hit. "I think I have a serious problem here," says Washington. "If she's not real careful, she's going to lose her kids."

MIAMI
Lawrence Scott arrives in a working-class neighborhood of single-family homes at mid-morning. He has come to speak with a father accused of kicking and punching his 15-year-old daughter. "But," Scott cautions, "this case is complicated." Though there is apparently an ongoing problem, he doesn't want to remove the daughter, who has provoked her parents by telling them she wants to be independent and have sex. Recently the family was advised to get counseling but never did. Now Scott will try to talk them into it. The father, who acknowledges he is frustrated and losing control over his daughter, insists he never beat her, as she claims. Scott is inclined to believe him, since the girl had no bruises when he and police examined her earlier.

The mother explains the parents' dilemma. "This is our first time raising a teenager," she says. "I'm from Panama. I was raised with beatings from the branch of a guava tree. If we had a parenting book that says here's what to do with your daughter at this age, hey, great. But I don't know what to do, so I pray. I'm learning to be a parent, but I was raised totally differently." The father promises to get counseling. "It's a priority now," he tells Scott. "Before, it wasn't. But the family has to be taken care of."

MARICOPA COUNTY

Looking bedraggled, Samantha answers caseworker Claudette Washington's knock at the front door of her single-story house in a dusty subdivision. Clearly, the place once looked better. There is a sectional sofa and a large-screen TV in a sunken living room. But now there are several parrots, some in cages, some walking free, all over the house—and bird droppings everywhere. Flies light on every surface, and trash overflows a pail in the kitchen.

Washington wastes no time. "I think you're doing drugs," she tells Samantha flatly. "Look at this place. I told you to clean it up." Samantha denies using drugs, and when Washington questions her about the way she disciplines 7-year-old Justin, Samantha, who has a daughter Rose, 8, and another son Ben, 3, insists she hasn't abused him. "I'm not going to let your children stay in this environment," says Washington. "I'm going to tell you this house is disgusting."

She warns Samantha that she is on her way to Justin's school to check the abuse allegations and that she intends to stop back later to inspect the house, which had better be cleaned up if Samantha hopes to keep her kids. Stepping outside, she is fuming. "This is what I see daily," she says. "I feel like throwing up." In the car, she calms down. "People make me sick when they make excuses," says Washington, the mother of a 17-year-old daughter, Mesha. "There's no reason for those children to be exposed to that bird crap. I feel sorry for her, but I know if I coddle her along, she ain't gonna do nothing."

JOHNSTON COUNTY, N.C.
Cynthia Starling, 27, a social worker for the county's Department of Social Services, is checking on April Ford, who regained custody of her three children in June. When investigators took them away a year earlier, food and garbage were knee-high in the little Ford farmhouse. Today, house and yard are strewn with toys and laundry. The kitchen floor is wet. "It's been hectic," Ford says of being reunited with her kids, as Starling inspects the house, "but it's good." Starling is sure Ford cleans only when she's expecting a visit. "It's just plain lack of taking responsibility," she says later in frustration. The past week has been tough on her department: Three babies have been brought to a hospital with broken bones, and last night a child beaten with an extension cord was removed to foster care.

BROOKLYN

It is noon in Judge Jody Adams's family court, where a couple with five children, four of whom are in foster care, are seeking to regain custody. Both parents are unemployed, frequently homeless and have a history of crack-cocaine and alcohol abuse. The lawyer for the foster mother argues that the birth father needs therapy and is not a fit parent. "Placement in foster care will be temporarily extended until the next hearing," says Adams, 49, tersely. Later, Adams, who has been a family-court judge for four years and earns $113,000 annually, comments on the daily parade of families before her: "This is a poor people's court. If these people were middle class, they'd be seeing a shrink, not testifying before a judge. I see a lot of hatred."

Elsewhere in the city, a year-old shelter run by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services houses 11 mothers and 30 kids, many of whom are the victims of physical or sexual abuse, usually at the hands of their father. Crystal, 26, was abused by her boyfriend. Her sons, Sam, 6, and Robert, 8, who were witnesses, have emotional problems. Sam has yet to learn to tie his shoes. "The one thing they need the most in life is love," says Marvelene Richards, a counselor at the shelter, of the children she works with.

MIAMI Around noon, with no new cases needing attention, investigator Lawrence Scott permits himself a rare luxury—stopping for lunch instead of going to a drive-thru. In the line at a fast-food chicken shack, he works his cell phone, catching up on cases. His lunch lasts just 16 minutes before his office beeps him to pick up information on a case that has come in involving a woman accused of neglect.

LOS ANGELES At a group home for girls, 14-year-old Shirley's face brightens at the sight of Robert Lewis, 54, a county social worker with a Ph.D. in counseling and educational psychology. She throws her skinny arms around him and squeezes. Only 70 pounds a year ago because of neglect, she now weighs nearly 100. But Lewis has bad news: Shirley's mother, an alcoholic and cocaine user, has failed to prove she is off drugs; as a consequence she must enter rehab. Shirley is remarkably stoic, and Lewis promises her a teddy bear on his next visit. He, like Shirley, hasn't given up on her mother. "She'll get there," he says. "Falling is sometimes part of the process of getting up."

BURLEY King West sits in his kitchen, pouring a Coke. Since he and Kathy married 29 years ago, they have taken in 72 foster children—some for a few months, others for several years. Not only do they have five grown kids of their own, but three years ago they adopted six foster siblings, the largest single adoption in Idaho history. (For their foster parenting, the Wests receive an average of $358 per child a month, all of which they spend on food, clothing and incidentals.) King flips open a recipe box and thumbs through index cards describing each child they have taken in. "I don't ever show this to anybody," he says. "It's just a little record I keep, with pictures of all the kids."

He pauses at one card. "This is Billy. It's hard for me to talk about what happened to him. He's a 9-year-old boy who was very badly sexually abused by his father. He was forced to perform sexual acts on his sister, who was 6, and his parents filmed them. Billy was repeatedly tied up and hung in the closet for hours at a time, and he had cigarette burns on his arms. He and his sister were locked in a bedroom with a toilet in the corner, and he'd get fed maybe once every two or three days. He had to drink water from the toilet." King falls silent. "It just tears you up inside to hear what these innocent children go through. It just tears you up."

MIAMI After getting the details of his new case, Lawrence Scott pulls up at a rundown townhouse at 1:22 p.m. A woman has been arrested for credit-card fraud. According to police, she used her 14-year-old daughter to sign for a package ordered with a stolen card. A police report says the girl's grandmother, who lives in the home, is "verbally abusive" toward the child and that the house is "extremely filthy."

As soon as Scott steps out of the car, he is hit by the acrid smell of cat urine. Inside a rusty metal fence, several cats lie in a heap in the yard, and two mangy dogs pace back and forth. The windows of the house are covered with sheets. When an elderly woman opens the front door, the stench is almost overwhelming. Scott tells her who he is and why he is there, but she speaks no English and he speaks no Spanish. The woman manages to convey that she is the grandmother and that the 14-year-old has gone with an older sister to the Animal Services office to see about getting rid of the cats and dogs. A quick look at the house reveals dirt and garbage everywhere, as well as yellow puddles on floors and countertops. Scott returns to his car and starts phoning, trying to locate the girl's sisters.

MARICOPA COUNTY Caseworker Claudette Washington pays a visit to the elementary school where Samantha's older children, Rose and Justin, are students. In separate interviews both express fear that they will be taken from their mother, though Justin says she sometimes orders him to do a handstand in the corner for an hour when he misbehaves. Washington has heard enough. "I think Mom has some serious mental-health issues," she says out of their earshot. "Those kids are going to go right now." From her car phone, Washington starts trying to track down Samantha's estranged husband, who turns out to be away on business.

BURLEY At 1:35 Jack Qualman pulls up in a van with a dark-haired boy sitting next to a big box of his belongings. King West opens the van door. The boy, wearing navy shorts and a matching T-shirt, grins at him as Qualman says, "King, I'd like you to meet Steve. He'll be staying with you for a while."

"So you're Steve, huh?" says King. "I'll bet you'll be good on the trampoline." Steve's brown eyes grow big. "Wow, you have a trampoline?"

Inside, Qualman gives King a folder containing a case history of Steve's mother, who is in jail for shoplifting. Steve has six brothers and sisters, all in different foster homes. Later, Qualman tells King that Steve was likely the victim of physical abuse. "There's a history of it in the family," he says.

MARICOPA COUNTY For the second time today, Claudette Washington arrives at Samantha's house. It is 2:25 p.m. "This is the hard part," she says as she gets out of the car. Inside, Samantha has been scrubbing the kitchen. Washington sits her down at a table. "I've made a decision here," she says. "You're not going to be too happy with it." Samantha starts crying, knowing her kids are headed for foster care. Suddenly Washington's toughness evaporates. "This is not forever," she says reassuringly. "This is until you get your life straightened out. I'm not doing this to be mean to you. I'm doing this to protect your children." Samantha nods. "I know," she says.

Rose and Justin, hovering nearby, are alarmed. Young Ben clings to his mother, wailing over and over, "I want to stay with you." After calming him, Washington takes the three kids to her car and buckles them into the backseat as Rose clutches her favorite book, one of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps. Washington drops them with another CPS worker, who will see that they get to a shelter that evening. Later, in the car, Washington talks about the reasons she removed the children—a pattern of negligence and suspected abuse, drug use and the number of Samantha's male visitors. "She has too many guys hanging around the house," says Washington. "Out here, molestation is one of the most common referrals I get." Still, she doesn't like taking the kids. "We've disrupted their whole lives," she says glumly.

MIAMI At 4 p.m., Lawrence Scott returns to the house that smells of cats, hoping to find the 14-year-old girl. She isn't there. A 23-year-old sister who lives nearby is initially hostile but promises the family will clean the house if he will hold off removing the girl. "We'll give them a chance and see how it works out," he says, back in the car.

BURLEY In the late afternoon, Kathy West returns home from classes at Idaho State University, where she is studying to become a high school history and computer teacher. She introduces herself to Steve. The youngster gives her a hug, but Kathy isn't fooled. "My initial impression is that Steve is hurting," she says. "That's why he's clinging to strangers. Kids don't do that if they're not hurting. To help, a lot of it is just being there, being constant. We won't put a bunch of rules on him the first few nights. He's got to get to know us, and we've got to get to know him. There will be time for rules later."

MIAMI Her work for the day finished, Judge Cindy Lederman takes a breather in chambers. It has been a routinely trying session—five cases this day—including testimony about a mother of nine with a chronic cocaine habit who has lost custody of all her children. "The first three months that I did this," says Lederman, a former deputy city attorney who has been a judge for nine years, the last three in the juvenile division, "I would wake up in the middle of the night all the time and be very upset. When I stand up sometimes I feel like I weigh 500 pounds after sitting there listening to these things."

BOSTON "What a sick family," says social worker Diane Harrold, 30, leaving a first-floor apartment in the city's Dorchester neighborhood. "The daughter was sexually abused by her uncle, and the father is more concerned about his brother going to jail than about her." The father has paid the girl's mother to write a letter saying the 15-year-old lies. During her interview with Harrold, the girl, who will receive therapy and may end up in a foster home if the father won't protect her, at first refused to talk, then sobbed, "My own mother sold me up the river."

MIAMI When Lawrence Scott returns at 7:45 p.m. to check on the girl he is looking for, her entire house is lit up, the front door is open, and bags of cleaning supplies are stacked outside. All three sisters are scrubbing away. Scott finally interviews the 14-year-old, who insists she doesn't want to leave home. "I was raised here, I love this house," she says. "It may look bad, but it's my house." Scott agrees to let her stay but says he will stop by next week to see how she's doing. Then he heads for home. Because of budget cutbacks and staff reductions, Scott, who lives with his fiancée, Desiree Norris, will be on call this evening for emergencies, as he is four nights a week.

BURLEY The Wests are putting on a barbecue to celebrate the third anniversary of their adoption of the six siblings—three boys and three girls. Thirty-seven people have shown up—all five of their own children, former foster children and grandchildren. At about 9 p.m. a group including newcomer Steve heads for the local Dairy Queen. Steve orders a chocolate sundae that turns out to be big enough for three. "It's my favorite thing in the world to eat," he says. "Can we do this tomorrow too?"

MARICOPA COUNTY Martin Jones, a Children's Protective Services investigator who is on the late shift from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. answering emergency calls, arrives at Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix. There has been a report of suspected abuse involving an 8-month-old girl. A young resident physician tells Jones, 49, the child has suffered a spiral fracture of the right humerus, a bone in the upper arm. "It's usually a twisting type injury," the doctor tells Jones. It is considered an indicator of possible abuse, and state law requires that doctors alert the authorities.

Jones introduces himself to the mother, Sherry, 26, who sits in a rocking chair holding the baby. She says she left the child on a bed at a babysitter's, and that the youngster rolled onto the floor. Separately, Jones interviews the babysitter, Cathy, who tells a similar story. The doctor is dubious. Falls usually don't cause this kind of injury, he says. Still, with no real evidence, Jones decides to refer the case to the day staff for investigation rather than take the child from her mother immediately. His hope is that putting the mother on notice that the state is watching will do some good.

CHICAGO By midnight, 86 reports of alleged child abuse have come in this day to the state's Department of Children and Family Services hotline—but only 19 since 5 p.m. "It's a slow night," says Mary Ellen Eads, 52, a department supervisor.

At 12:30, investigators Dawn Brooks, 45, and Tony Powell, 35, are heading out to check two anonymous hotline calls, including a report that a child has been repeatedly beaten with a belt on Chicago's West Side. "One advantage of going at this hour of the night is you usually catch the people at home," says Powell.

Yet, as is often the case, the investigators don't have an apartment number. They finally locate the family, who are asleep. Brooks and Powell persuade the parents to send their 12-year-old son out into the hall to talk. The boy has a bruise above his left eye, which Brooks notes on a body chart that will be placed in a file. The boy says he fell off his bicycle. "Are you afraid of anything?" Brooks asks the drowsy child. "No," he replies. "Has anyone been beating on you?" Brooks continues in a comforting tone. "Not in my house," he says. She and Powell conclude the boy is in no apparent danger and allow him to stay with his family.

Back at the office, the investigators catch up on paperwork. Then at 4:30 a.m. the fax machine hums to life, signaling an emergency report coming in. A 3-year-old boy has been cut crashing through a window at his home; the hospital believes he may have been improperly supervised. As dawn breaks, Brooks and Powell get in their car once more to investigate.

MIAMI The following morning investigator Lawrence Scott is up and about. Remarkably, there were no emergency calls overnight, and Scott, who frequently goes into the office on Saturdays to catch up on paperwork, is taking a day for himself. Come Monday there will be little time to relax. But he has learned to live with that and to face whatever bleak prospects the new week will bring. "When I first started, I hated Mondays because you knew there would be three or four cases on the printer," he says. "Monday was always the hardest day. Now," he adds with resignation, "I'm used to it."

BILL HEWITT
Reported by FRAN BRENNAN, DON SIDER and FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Miami, MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Maricopa County, CATHY FREE in Burley, BARBARA SANDLER and GIOVANNA BREU in Chicago, NICOLE BRODEUR in Johnston County, RON ARIAS and JULIA CAMPBELL in New York City, LESLIE BERESTEIN and KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles, MARK DAGOSTINO in Boston and MARY ESSELMAN in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Fran Brennan,
  • Don Sider,
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Michael Haederle,
  • Cathy Free,
  • Barbara Sandler,
  • Giovanna Breu,
  • Nicole Brodeur,
  • Ron Arias,
  • Julia Campbell,
  • Leslie Berestein,
  • Karen Brailsford,
  • Mark Dagostino,
  • Mary Esselman.