Unhinged, Baby In Tow

by

01/03/2002

50 Sixth Avenue ny 10013

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

Part One

Distinguishing true from harassing reports – some days, one in four – looms large for Emergency Children’s Services (ECS), the city office that responds to child abuse and neglect throughout the five boroughs during the night, and on weekends and holidays. Fake reports are less of a problem for the weekday nine-to-fivers. But nights or weekends, people have a couple of drinks and hatch the bright idea to sic child welfare on their enemies. So I learned working as an ECSer for three years, before my fourth and final year as a ‘nine-to-five’ caseworker in a borough field office.

If a report is anonymous, it receives less of a fire-alarm response than a call from a cop, a doctor, or a relative leaving their name and number. Such reports, called into the child abuse hotline up in Albany and then faxed down to the city, are often just some nameless ex-boyfriend harassing mom, or an equally anonymous neighbor furious at someone flirting with her husband again, someone whose kids make her vulnerable to this particular species of nastiness. Child welfare caseworkers, a job I held – no, a job that gripped me – for four years back in the early 1990s, soon learn the more outlandish the anonymous report, with disparate, oh-yeah-and-another-thing allegations piled high, the more likely it’s nothing but tripe.

Then there were the valid anonymous reports.

The gist of this one, a new case faxed to ECS by the intake person manning the hotline up in Albany, concerning young Sylvia Alves (all names have been changed) were as follows: Distraught, her marriage unraveling, Sylvia was allegedly threatening to kill her ten-month-old son, Jamie, and had actually made some frightening gestures to that end.

A couple of weeks prior, the faxed report continued, she’d left infant Jamie partly hidden in a pile of leaves down on the plaza surrounding her building. George Alves, his father and her husband, eventually discovered him. And, presumably compelling the unnamed source to finally call the hotline one evening a few days before, Sylvia had stripped Jamie naked (a compelling detail less likely to be fabricated) and headed for the nearby highway, threatening to throw him – and herself? – into on-rushing traffic. Her equally young husband, both parents just out of their teens, watched for a while before stopping Sylvia at the highway’s edge. Such were tonight’s anonymous allegations from someone close enough to the family to know.

The report’s sparse identifying information precluded checking computerized child welfare or public assistance records. And the allegations were too alarming to just attempt phone contact – this evening anyway.

(The decision whether to go out and ‘visit,’ as it was quaintly known, a client depended on workload, supervisory inclination and the availability of workers and cars. To the city’s shame, many nights during my tenure, ECS got only two or three of the dozens of city cars parked within blocks of our Tribecca office. We’d limp along covering five boroughs with three cars, plus, for dire emergencies, a few expensive and inefficient chartered taxis with drivers.)

Winter nigh this evening back in 1992, it sounded plausible enough that the night’s field partner, Al, and I would head to Brooklyn to see for ourselves. Even if just a cockamamie harassment report, it’d be a change of pace for us, what with crack decimating ECS’s clients and dominating our workdays.

Since Sylvia was living in a nicely middle-class apartment complex, at least we wouldn’t be creeping up dark, urine-puddled stairs, peering three flights up and whistling so as not to startle anyone in the midst of a deal, on the way to rousting some smoke-hound. A slow night, we had a single case each. And that was fine on this, our version of Friday, the fifth day straight of driving far, eating lousy pizza and Little Debbies (the ghetto’s generous-for-a-quarter helping of sugared chemicals), poking at problems of others’ making. This particular evening’s alleged crackhead belonged to me; Sylvia was assigned to Al. We’d handle my case in Bed-Sty and – assuming we snatched no kids there, the pre-Giuliani operational assumption – then head deep into Brooklyn, almost to the water. Al was a regular among my half-dozen or so rotating field partners on our crew’s crazy split shift (four-to-midnight, Monday-to-Wednesday and daytimes on weekends and holidays, when caseworkers ventured out alone). He and I had been wrangling our way for months now through ECS’s wonders and delights: domestic violence cases, or parents lashing out at boy-crazed teenage girls, or the neglect of crippling poverty or crack moms, yes, selling their kids (one way or another) for rock. By the way, Al isn’t any more his real name than Sylvia is hers.

We grabbed a putt-putt Chevy and headed to Brooklyn, soon dispatching my no-account case. Turning to the ocean, Manhattan at our backs, I relaxed, ready to assist Al on his case as necessary. We pulled up to a cluster of spacewship apartment towers around eight o’clock and interrupted a festive birthday party for George’s pre-school half-brother.

Nearly a dozen people, mostly members of the large Hispanic family, lounged around the tasteful apartment. The attractive, quite young paternal grandmother (people in a case are defined by their relationship to the subject child) orchestrated dinner in the kitchen. Her husband, Roberto – George’s mid-forties stepfather – held court in the living room, dispensing a shot or two of rum on the proud occasion of his young son’s birthday. Sleek, not tall, with a thatch of black hair, Roberto was just starting the belly of his middle years. Two pubescent girls, the little birthday boy, a late-teens enchantress bopping in a corner to salsa from a fancy stereo, a couple of teenage boys apparently connected to her, George and his adult brother rounded out the happy crew. A video camera on a tripod eyed a multi-tiered mass of blue, pink and white curlicues, the biggest cake I’ve ever seen without a bride and groom on top. Candy clustered by every seat awaited dessert. But there was no sign of Sylvia or young Jamie, her and George’s infant son.

To ease the job, most ECSers are initially apologetic barging into someone’s home, certainly in the midst of a party, certainly on an anonymous report. Depending on the (often fake) allegations, we sugarcoat our inquiries a bit at first, honing in gingerly, a client’s reaction helping us gauge his or her veracity. Some cases, of course, there’s little for it but to jump in with both feet: Well, ma’am, the hospital tells us someone’s been messing with your nine-year-old, and she says it’s your boyfriend. Here, Al proceeded incrementally, after determining that George – in the mother’s absence, addressed as the father – didn’t mind talking in front of everyone.

Not only didn’t he mind, all the adults chorused a litany of Sylvia’s sins. She was crazy, sloppy, didn’t care, acted nuts, left her room a mess, dressed bad, et cetera. Step-granddad Roberto led the indictment. His cocky, good-looking, caramel-colored, 5’9″ young stepson George adopted a diffident, what-can-you-do-with-these-crazy-females attitude. Amidst his shrugs, George did mention he wanted a divorce. Apparently the young gadabout was not going to sully his hands unduly with the messy ramifications of paternity.

We stood in an alcove opening into the highly polished dining room, talking mostly to Roberto; his wife – George’s mother – joined in as she stirred pots in the open kitchen. Al said, Well, yeah, but Sylvia’s “crazy” how? We heard that maybe she was thinking about throwing the baby into traffic down on the highway? Looking suitably grave, but nonjudgmental, he gave them permission to admit the potential tragedy.

They didn’t know if she’d have gone through with it, but, yes, Sylvia had removed all of Jamie’s clothes and got just about to the road before George stopped her. They also confirmed she’d left Jamie in a pile of leaves one evening a couple of weeks prior.

So the anonymous allegations were true. Al muffled his incredulity – somewhat. “You mean you know this has been going on for weeks, and you haven’t taken her to a doctor? Haven’t tried to find out what’s wrong? Why she’d doing this?” Again, his hopeful look.

Hey, she’s crazy, said Roberto, what could we do? He added he had to stop her from taking a handful of pills a while back. He didn’t remember what kind. Apparently, credible gestures of suicide and infanticide didn’t warrant medical intervention, at least not for a grafted-on family member and her child.

So where is she now, and where’s the baby if you know all this is going on? Al’s pitch and volume rose. She goes out, they reported, sitting in the courtyard or hanging out on the building’s stairways. Sometimes she visits a girlfriend. But mostly she’s just … out. Now that it was cold, they thought the stairs her usual haunt. All they really knew was Sylvia was gone before George got home from work in the afternoon and stayed out until after eleven when he either left or fell asleep. Sylvia had been making herself and ten-month-old Jamie scarce eight or so hours a day for weeks; that was the accepted order of things here. At least, living there with them, she wasn’t roaming some fearsome city housing project at all hours.

But why???

The reason apparent to everyone but us, they professed their mendacious ignorance, ready to dismiss the matter. My broad-backed partner pressed them again. Saying she was just plain crazy, they brought us to Sylvia’s bedroom, a farrago of disaster with clothes strewn everywhere, clutter on every surface and dirty disposable diapers festering in the wastebasket. Miffed, Roberto told us they even gave her her own room, forcing some of his own kids to double-up.

Back in the dining room, Al cut incredulously to the chase. If they knew Sylvia was acting crazy and threatening to harm Jamie, why did they let her leave with the baby every day? Roberto shrugged, while the opaque window engaged George. Finally Grandma said, “The child is his mother’s responsibility. It’s her baby – what can we do?”

Al and I had just stumbled on to the world’s second immaculate conception.

A sorry state, true. But they were resigned to it, what was our problem? No one contradicted Grandma as Al and I looked from one to another, down to the young girls, and then disbelievingly at each other. I turned away, scared that engaging Al might cause him to blow. Music blaring all the while, teenage Enchantress and one of the boys started half-dancing in the corner, and Grandma asked George’s older brother to hand down plates from a cabinet, dinner about ready. They’d answered our questions, etched their thoughts, and that seemed to be that.

A dangerously unhinged mom had been disappearing with her baby for weeks, maybe months (they wisely resisted our subsequent efforts to pin down the time frame) and they shrugged. Her marrying into the family was viewed as a youthful indiscretion on George’s part of no great consequence.

Unfortunately, a living, breathing consequence with some claim for the next seventeen years was out wandering the cold night away, a consequence that presumably prompted the marriage. But the ceremony was a while back, and I guess George never really took to his son. They physically harbored Sylvia, but emotionally cut her loose. Given that so many young fathers barely acknowledge their offspring, perhaps they felt that was enough.

A man of great family feeling himself, despite the hurdles fate had seen fit to grant him, Al stifled his anger as he asked everyone’s names and ages for his report, both of us pondering our next move. Not knowing Sylvia’s description or which apartments she frequented, we needed help finding her for a quick and very dirty field assessment of her mental state, specifically her potential to hurt Jamie and (secondarily, I’m afraid) herself. We’d bring our vast educational qualifications to bear, all caseworkers having bachelor’s degrees, at this time perhaps in marketing from an open-admissions city school. Heck, we’d talk to her, to some small degree like a hospital ER psychiatrist would, then examine our guts for guidance, also somewhat like the shrink.

We dragooned a reluctant George to help search for Sylvia and left after a bone-crushing handshake from Roberto and more futile offers – Al having suppressed his anger – of just a nip of his truly superior rum. Encountering nothing but echoes, we trooped up and down a couple of flights in both of the building’s stairwells before Al lost it.

Aghast at George’s lack of paternal feeling, he lectured him with increasing vehemence on his responsibilities as a father. George responded with his signature faraway gaze, and I was afraid he’d bolt before doing us the great good favor of showing us Sylvia’s friends’ apartments. So I started bucking him up in small ways: holding the door, literally patting him on the back, thanking him for his help locating his own darn kid. Not directly undermining Al’s trenchant, spat-out comments, I kissed butt so he wouldn’t walk and shot my sputtering colleague a look to back off the criticism since this jerk was our only lead.

I held the elevator door for him and then asked the price of his sneakers – so slick I might want a pair myself. (Hearing, I was glad it was just operational flattery.) The kid laid some Tinkerbell taps on an apartment door. I had to resist the impulse to reach around him for my usual forceful announcement of government assistance. He turned to leave, so I satisfied myself loud and long no one was home.

That was a girlfriend’s apartment. The other option was Sylvia’s friend, Jeffrey. But in a clear indication his marriage was kaput, George wasn’t sure of the apartment. If he still cared, no way his young wife and baby would be hanging with some guy for hours, he knew not where. We urged him to make a stab at finding Jeffrey’s apartment, and some nonplussed guy opened to his knock. George said, You’re not Jeffrey and turned to go. But unless we were on the wrong floor, this was one of Jeffrey’s neighbors. I piped up about the baby we really needed to see, and, perhaps catching the thrill of the chase, George said, “You know, man – Jeffrey, the dude with the baby Benz.” The neighbor pointed us to the right door. Catching George’s first knock to lay an ear on it, I thought I heard someone inside. But no one answered.

Curious about the mother’s milieu and its possible effect on her and Jamie, I asked George if Jeffrey dealt drugs.

Quick on the uptake, he gave me a sneer and said, “Why, cause he’s got a Mercedes, you just figure he’s a dealer? That’s the only way a dude down here [in Brooklyn] has one?” Punishing me, George said no more. Furious at George and annoyed I hadn’t buttressed his harangue, Al ran his hand through his hair and glared silently at the floor.

Since her friends weren’t home, Sylvia was perhaps bemoaning her fate downstairs on a bench this chilly night. Anyone sitting outside this hour with a baby was she, but we still dragged George along to look for his erstwhile-in-all-but-name wife. The deserted, wind-swept plain surrounding the giant towers was safe (enough), but spooky. Looking for a huddled form on a bench, the traffic just audible from the highway, the sullen, silent trio circled George’s building, a building nearby, and one of us even a third. Futility howled on the wind, winter a whisker away, cold and early night curtailing one of Sylvia’s meager options.

Al sprang to life to press Dad on where else Mom might hang. Few pizzerias and the like were within walking distance, and we’d already heard she had almost no family in New York. So she and Jamie were close by, either vertically or horizontally. George was disgusted at missing the fun upstairs, his meal grown cold over his fool wife and albatross son. Still, heading back we were able to prevail upon him to grant us one more possibility. But the folks in that apartment hadn’t seen Sylvia since yesterday, when she and Jamie lingered there a couple of hours watching TV.

By ECS and certainly the nine-to-fivers’ standards (their cases weren’t necessarily dire emergencies; besides, unlike an ECS case, their’s weren’t shipped elsewhere the next business day), with all that climbing stairs and wandering the grounds, we were long past entitled to leave. Many caseworkers would’ve contented themselves solely with the initial interview. Though there really wasn’t much more to say, we trailed George home for a final exhortation. His feasting family took us in stride, petty annoyances allied with the no-account girl. We’d exhausted George’s minimal involvement; he sat to a full plate next to Enchantress.

Our only remaining arrow a heart-to-heart with the patriarch, Al motioned stepgranddad Roberto into the foyer for some quiet cajolery about the danger to Jamie. By the luck of the draw the case officially his, at my approach, Al curtly instructed me to get more details from George about Sylvia’s erratic behavior. George busy with a fork, I joined the video camera in vacantly eyeing the cake. Fussing over birthday boy, Grandma swooped in with a glare for me and seconds for the rest. Suddenly angry, Roberto stalked away from Al. And that was that. Barely acknowledged, Al provided ECS’s phone number for Sylvia to call when she showed.

Exit, pursued by ignominy.

More from frustration than hope, we headed back up to Sylvia’s friend Jeffrey’s apartment on the ghost of a chance I had actually heard someone stirring within. In the elevator, we pondered the young Mercedes owner’s possible drug dealing, which usually meant weapons and jumpiness responding to unexpected visitors. So, aping a police roust of a known dealer and attended by a slight adrenal buzz, we positioned ourselves either side of Jeffrey’s door to lean over, listen and knock.

Nothing.

George dispatched, Al’s mood brightened. A brooding, born civil servant, he took his job or, rather, the children we were charged to protect, more seriously than most. At our emergency office, cases literally here today, gone tomorrow, some ECSers (by far the minority) had a somewhat, oh, abstract relationship to the children we had no notion of prior to reading the fax from Albany initiating the case. Whether amelioration, disaster – and saving a kid’s life by shredding a family is a necessary defeat at best – or mere dyspepsia ensued, unlike clients, caseworkers still eventually just clocked out and went home. Though a glass-half-full type when not consumed by either financial woes, undue semen buildup, or the damn stick-in-the-spokes job itself, Al had been punching the child welfare clock long enough to realize what was at stake. Bust up a family or not – and therefore risk a fatality? The constant Hobbesian dilemma lurked, cackling on Al’s shoulder. Me? I just wanted to stay out of the newspapers.

Since our previous search of the stairs hadn’t reached this high, he suggested we separate and hit both stairwells going down. Given Sylvia’s circumstances and frightening gestures towards Jamie, by this point the chase had a life of its own. Competing against my several field partners, as well as the ECSers who worked other shifts and, yes, the rampant notion of child welfare mediocrity, I climbed the top two flights before heading down. I wondered if Al had thought of this and wished I could yell to him through the walls. Quite a shame if we collectively hit thirty-eight of forty flights, and the two above him sheltered our troubled prey. Hoping she’d materialize round each turn, I trooped quietly down twenty flights so as not to spook Sylvia into some mad dash. Outside, I circled the building one last time and headed for our car, figuring to find a resigned Al thinking about lunch, not that either of us had much scratch this day before payday. Nope, our Chevy was empty. Al with the keys (I don’t remember if we’d squabbled this particular evening over who drove), I leaned against the car wishing for a warmer coat. Then it dawned: he’d hit pay dirt.

Awarding myself a battlefield masters degree by saying I was a ‘social worker,’ I weaseled my way back in the building on my sixth attempt, five busybodies refusing to buzz me in when I wouldn’t identify my client. Trying to remember which set of stairs I’d come down and not sure he was even on the stairs, I climbed, yelling Al’s name. A half-dozen flights up I heard him telling me to calm down. I wondered what I’d missed, Al already interviewing Mom.

Rounding a corner, there she was, dandling a healthy baby boy. We’d despaired of seeing these two tonight – or ever, given the one-shot nature of ECS casework – and, making introductions, Al flashed a triumphant grin. An internecine competitor himself (my field partners’ unaccountable natural tendency), he’d lucked out with tonight’s stairwell draw.

Somewhat thick waisted in her sweater and sweat pants, Sylvia was darker than George and his kin, with a broad, unadorned, handsome face. She was loaded down with a blanket and shawl for Jamie, her own jacket and a flight bag with a couple of baby bottles and diapers and a copy of Cosmopolitan peeking out – measly company for too many hours.

She’d spent the late afternoon out on the plaza, perhaps with some people around for company. I can imagine them growing cold or bored and ascending to their TVs too quickly for her liking, leaving her to await the next amenable passerby, dreading dusk when the mercury dropped, and people hurried to supper with their families.

Yes, judge her nonsense with a defenseless baby harshly, but consider your own annoyance stuck waiting even fifteen minutes somewhere on someone. Then translate that pique to the lovesick girl’s hours and weeks of ennui saddled with a baby the father has disowned. Barely out of her teens, with no amusements, no prospects, no family, no money, nowhere to go – disowned herself – she stared at cinder-block stairway walls and waited for sleep to claim her husband or some villainess to lure him away. By slinking unseen back to her room only then, she at least escaped George’s scorn.

None of her few friends were home this evening, we heard, except the one girlfriend she’d imposed on the night before. Imagine Sylvia’s calculations juggling her few options: Damn, Jeffrey’s out. But he’s getting sick of me, and especially the baby, anyway. I’ve been to [girlfriend’s] twice already this week. Gotta wait till at least tomorrow and make sure I go after dinner. I hope she puts out some pretzels.

Imagine the discipline, once the cold night drove her from the plaza, to forsake the girlfriend’s and head for the hard, excruciatingly boring stairs She had to remember to piss behind a bush and then change Jamie before heading in. All this with winter near and no good end to her woes in sight.

His knees perhaps creakier even than mine schlumping down all those stairs, Al hadn’t been with her long and was just launching his humane inquisition. As mentioned, an ECSer’s initial approach is usually respectful, sometimes even fawning, disarming people to get them talking. Here, tactics aside, the callous treatment raining down on Sylvia sparked our genuine sympathy.

She was so at odds with her life, such a refugee, she wouldn’t talk on the stairs, fearing someone, perhaps George, might sneak within hearing and shred her few remaining scraps of dignity. So we repaired to our little isolation booth on wheels, Al and I soon knocking knees in the front seat, turned round to Sylvia. Jamie, the object of all this flapdoodle, was now fast asleep.

Her story was simple, intractable: George had thrown her over for the young Enchantress taking her place at the party. No, that didn’t justify her behavior, but it was the explanation George, Roberto and company couldn’t quite muster. Burdened with Jamie and with essentially nowhere else to go, Sylvia refused to fall on her sword and somehow fade quietly away. So George was making it painfully clear, inviting Enchantress over almost daily and spending nights at her place. Maybe he hoped to drive his wife and child back to her family on the Caribbean island she came from.

Unwilling to wallow in humiliation, Sylvia took refuge where she could, leaving the apartment in mid-afternoon before George returned from work and not returning till midnight, her husband either gone or asleep. Lately, with the cold and early dark, she’d spent a lot of time nursing her pain on the stairs. We can imagine her mornings with George’s stern mother, wondering if she dared ask for another piece of toast.

Though George slammed home the new verities, Sylvia cast a willful blind eye. Shunned for some reason by her only relative in America, perhaps she had no choice. Throughout this long night, Al and I tried to administer a cold dose of reality: her marriage seemed over, and she was ultimately better off without the haircut passing for a husband. She clung to the hope that somehow “counseling” would magically restore her in George’s eyes. I didn’t see it, given his values, Enchantress’s charms and his son’s meager hold.

A stubborn, well-spoken girl who might or might not crack, she wasn’t relinquishing George without a struggle, self-respect be damned. Our admiration for her spunk, her sheer bovine indomitability, clashed with dismay over her appalling conduct with Jamie. At bottom, we had to try to determine if her threats were more than posturing. After all, they’d been made in George’s presence and, given her in-laws’ startling indifference, she’d had ample subsequent opportunity.

No one throws their child onto a highway, you might say. But in the early 90s, a child a week and more, on average, died from abuse or neglect in New York, few garnering much real attention. Waltzing fresh into the unknown, ECSers can’t afford to dismiss a report’s allegations. And this was a fine night for a fatal gesture, a party raging that Sylvia couldn’t attend, Enchantress occupying her chair, a visit from child welfare just fanning the flames.

Barely containing myself, but playing second fiddle on a field partner’s case, I asked only a third of my questions. Al seemingly reluctant, I did interrupt Sylvia’s discourse on her hopes and fears for her marriage to broach the crucial issue: was her despair so overwhelming she’d maybe kill her child?

“I know things are really tough for you now,” I said. “It sounds like you’re really up against it. But tell us, have things ever gotten so bad you’ve ever thought of hurting Jamie?”

Click here for Part Two

C 2001, Daniel Forbes: ' + '') /*]]>*/
New York freelancer Daniel Forbes testified before both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives regarding his award-winning series in Salon on sub-rosa White House payments to television networks and magazines rewarding embedded anti-drug content. A subsequent Salon article detailed this media campaign’s origins as an attempt to influence voters on state medical marijuana initiatives. First article in this series published April 29, 2001.

Names and identifying details in this piece have been changed.

Other stories in this series:

Click here for Unhinged, Baby in Tow

Click here for Circling Two Wagons

Click here for Fifty Bucks Up In Smoke

Click here for Faster Than I Thought Possible

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