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With kids' safety on the line, child welfare can't be wrong

TAMPA

Eight hours into her day, child protective investigator Allison Dingivan gets the call that makes the others fade away. • Domestic violence in a home with an already thick file. A man bleeding from his face and a woman bruised on her head. Broken glass. Three boys and a girl at risk. • Allison has been at this since 9:30. First she talked to a kid who tried to strangle himself on a school bus. In a home with a baby, she drug-tested a teen mother, an aunt and a grandma. • She hasn't eaten lunch and it's almost dinner time, but the bloody father awaits her. • When she arrives outside a mobile home in east Hillsborough County, a deputy opens a transportation van and unlocks its cage. • Inside is a man, hog-tied in chains.

• • •

It often starts with a call to a child abuse hotline, and just a few scraps of suspicion.

A kid gets a bad grade at school and breaks down, afraid. A little girl shows up at day care with a possible cigarette burn. An intoxicated mother, baby in tow, crashes her car.

A case is born, and so begins a fresh jitter in the stomach of an investigator — Allison, or 100 other civilians like her in the child protective division of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where endangered child referrals arrive at the rate of 1,000 a month.

A computerized clock ticks down Allison's deadlines and alerts the state if she falls behind. She has a day to check some tips, and two hours for others. State rules give her 60 days to close a case. The sheriff allows 45.

She must decide whom to trust, what to write down, when to break up families and when to allow parents second chances.

If she's wrong, children will suffer and the public's wrath will come down on her agency.

If she's right, few people hear about it, because her work is confidential.

And sometimes, being right is the hard part.

• • •

For the third time, Allison asks the man in chains what happened.

"What am I supposed to say?" he asks. "So you can come up and snatch my kids from me because of me and my wife fighting?"

She wonders if these people know just how complicated it is to take away kids — the paperwork, court dates, late-night calls to foster homes.

It happens in less than 10 percent of cases, and as a last resort.

She asks him how he got the cut on his face.

"I did it to myself," he says. "And this black eye? I punched myself in the face."

Of all the cases Allison investigates, she finds it hardest to trust families with domestic violence. Parents lie, and they feel justified in lying, because they don't think their kids are in danger. But bad things can happen to children when adults fight. A woman is shot with a baby in her arms; an infant is found dead on the road.

Allison enters the mobile home, which she hears has been cleaned up since the fight. She sees fist-sized holes on the door to the bathroom and the boys' bedroom. The wife insists her husband didn't put them there.

The boys, ages 10 to 13, are his from another marriage. The girl, 7, is their daughter.

At this point, Allison needs to figure out whether the woman can keep the kids safe.

"What's your plan?" Allison asks.

The woman tells Allison the fights happen when he's unemployed. "I've been trying to hold it together," the woman says. "When you're together 24 hours a day constantly . . . I'm not trying to make excuses. . . ."

"So," Allison repeats, "what's the plan?"

"He's laid off. . . ."

"What's the plan in terms of you and your kids?" Allison asks. "Are you going to let him back in the house?"

"I don't even know if I'm going to be here," the woman says. "I love him, but I don't know if I can live like this anymore."

Allison hasn't heard what she needs to hear.

She'll continue to interview everyone who lives in the house. Three boys will deny they see fighting. According to the file, they always deny it.

The little girl, however, has something to say.

• • •

She wears a Tinkerbell sweatshirt. Her front teeth belong to the Tooth Fairy.

She sits on the bed, legs crossed at the ankle, hands folded in her lap.

Allison asks what grade she's in. She holds up two fingers but keeps her eyes on the uniformed deputies standing guard.

"You're not afraid, are you?" Allison asks.

"I'm kind of shy," the girl says. Allison asks if she knows the difference between the truth and a lie.

She does.

Allison says she needs help solving a puzzle. She needs to know what the girl saw.

"I was holding the door open," the girl says. "I was screaming at my daddy and my mommy to stop."

Her father broke the window. He flipped over a coffee table.

"Did you see all this?" Allison asks.

"I was standing right there," the girl says. "The table almost hit me."

"Are you afraid of your mom and dad?"

"Well," the girl says, "I'm afraid of my dad. He threatened to kill my mom with a gun."

"Did you hear that?"

"No," the girl says. "My mom told me, and she doesn't lie."

• • •

It's dark. Allison sits parked outside the mobile home, talking on the phone with her supervisor, Griffin Norris.

He spent the past couple of hours reviewing the family's file and domestic violence record. The father had been offered counseling. He had taken an anger management class. The couple had promised to stop fighting, but they broke that promise.

Sometimes, couples fight and it's isolated. But Norris sees a pattern here. He knows the kids have been present. He fears the gun threat.

He tells Allison, "We need to remove."

As she steps out of her car and walks across the street, as she passes the broken window and walks up the steps of the trailer, she asks herself the usual questions:

Is she going to flip out on me? Is she going to cry? Is she going to make a scene in front of the kids?

The children are eating dinner when the investigator returns. She asks them to leave the room.

The mother sits down and looks at Allison.

• • •

On a normal night, Allison would be getting home to her boyfriend, Steve, right now.

She's looking forward to the weekend: getting dressed up, eating a fancy Italian dinner and seeing Wicked for the third time.

Her cubicle is decorated with fairy tale characters, including Tinkerbell.

When her job gets tough, she and her boyfriend go to Disney World. It makes her feel 5 years old again, and she loves that feeling.

Allison has a history of her own. Her young parents gave her up as an infant. She spent time in foster care, before another family adopted her at 4 months. The new family called her a "miracle."

Before she became an investigator, she worked for Hillsborough Kids Inc. with parents and children who had been split up. She switched because she wanted to help families sooner, so that maybe they could stay together.

That's what makes this especially tough.

• • •

Allison takes a breath.

"The attorney general's office gave probable cause to remove all four children based on domestic violence," she says.

The mother is quiet for a second.

Then she asks if the kids can stay with relatives.

The relatives would have to pass a background check and a home inspection, Allison tells her. They would have to be willing to take the kids long-term. Maybe indefinitely.

The woman shakes her head, overwhelmed.

The phone rings. It's her husband. She tells him to call back later. Then, she calls her mother.

"I need you to come," her voice cracks. "They're taking the kids."

The grandmother agrees to take in the girl.

The father has told investigators that the boys are not allowed to be with their birth mother. It's unclear to Allison why. She calls the boys' grandparents and leaves a message on an answering machine.

If a relative can't take them, they will have to go to foster care.

After the boys pack, the 10-year-old emerges from the room, eyes raw from crying. He slams his bag on the floor.

• • •

The 10-year-old and his stepmother embrace. It's unclear when they will live together again. He breaks away and leaves in tears. "Love you," she tells him.

The three boys load their backpacks in Allison's car.

"I don't want to go," the youngest boy tells his brothers.

The two older ones are no longer crying. They found out they weren't going to foster care after all.

The grandparents have called back.

"You don't want to go to grandma's?" the 12-year-old asks. "You crazy."

"I want to stay here," the youngest tells him.

"They won't let you," his brother responds.

The boys pile into Allison's car. She drives to a spotless home on 5 acres with a spare bedroom and a big living room. Grandpa is retired. Grandma has a government job. The boys don't see them often, but their photos are on the refrigerator.

The 12-year-old remembers grandma's candy bowl.

"So," Allison breaks the silence, "How do we feel about going to grandma's?"

The 10-year-old speaks up.

"I'm glad," he says. "At least we're not going somewhere else that we don't know."

The grandparents are waiting outside. It has been about 20 years since they cared for children full-time. The grandmother is nervous, but she opens her arms as the boys come in for hugs.

"Do you got cable?" the 10-year-old asks.

"Grandpa can help you with that," she says.

Allison watches them run inside.

Then, she follows, ready to get a good look at the grandparents' home.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

About this story

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office allowed Times reporter Alexandra Zayas access to the Child Protective Investigations Division, with the condition that families not be identified. She began reporting in January, riding along with investigators Rachel Vermette, Kira Sholes and Allison Dingivan and observing visits supervised by community service officer Arlene Acevedo — identifying herself as a journalist to families observed. She encountered alleged cases of drug use, sexual abuse, domestic violence and neglect. Ultimately, Zayas chronicled a day with one investigator that best summarized the challenges the workers face every day.

After the night described in the story, a judge ordered the boys to live with their birth mother, who still had parental rights. The father had been keeping them from her, Allison learned. Allison says they have opened up about what life was like before they met her.

With kids' safety on the line, child welfare can't be wrong 04/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 10:08pm]

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