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Child Abuse Investigator Pat Richardson Has to Confront the Unspeakable with Compassion

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Three children were being held hostage by their mother’s boyfriend. He had shot her (in the foot, after ordering her to “dance”), knocked her around and tossed her into the street. Police had been there all night in the bitter cold. It was a standoff.

Pat Richardson heard it on the radio and figured: “I’m gonna wind up in the middle of that one if the kids live.”

And she did. Within minutes after the siege ended and the children were safe, Anita Donaldson flipped the CA/N-1 (Child Abuse/Neglect) form onto Pat’s desk with a grim smile and a singsong, “It’s alllll yours. Have fun.”

“Oh, phooey, I knew it” Pat said, only she didn’t say phooey. “How did I know you’d dump this one on me.”

Not that she really minded. Richardson, who is 31, expects to get the tough cases. But it’s something of a ritual among child abuse investigators in Kansas City, Mo. to rage against each new atrocity tossed onto their desks, a way of letting off steam. In fact, the investigators—there are 27—are notorious for their rowdiness. For years their office was at the 50-yard line of the Football Field, an endless, depressing room full of social workers on the fifth floor of the Division of Family Services building downtown (the Field was abandoned temporarily in early March because of asbestos dust). Surrounded by less dramatic colleagues—foster care and ongoing treatment workers—the investigators were the target of more than a few complaints. Occasionally it was suggested that they be moved—to a far end of the room, perhaps another room, someplace padded…but away from the center of things. And yet the center was right: The investigators are the one-person SWAT teams of child abuse. They have to respond immediately—within 24 hours—to the reports of brutality, perversion and neglect that are received with stomach-turning regularity by the local child abuse hotline. They talk with the kids, confront the parents and decide what is to be done. Almost every choice—to remove a child from a family, to let him stay—is impossible, and yet the decisions are made daily, painfully, sometimes on the basis of little more than the investigator’s feel for the situation.

“If we didn’t scream and curse and mess around,” Pat says, “we’d go nuts.”

The hostage children had been taken to the home of their common-law stepgrandparents, the parents of the man who had held them captive (unhappy families are all the same, Pat sometimes thought: tangled). There was a month-old infant and two girls, 6 and 12. Pat sat cross-legged on the floor of the modest, crowded house and talked with them. She didn’t have to ask many questions: The 6-year-old was running off at the mouth about the siege as if it were a TV show she had been watching. The older girl was morose, embarrassed. There was no evidence of physical or sexual abuse; the siege had been horrifying but apparently an isolated incident. Still Pat lingered, concerned about the older girl. “Are you worried about school?” Pat asked.

The girl nodded.

“Well, you have to expect the kids are gonna tease you,” Pat said. “That can be rough.”

Tears began to form in the girl’s eyes and Pat—instinctively, unwilling to be less than human—reached out and held her hand.

“I can’t help it,” she said later. “I know I probably shouldn’t let myself get involved but, well…at least this time I didn’t cry.”

There was a celebration later that evening in a tavern near the Division of Family Services offices, a going-away party for Eartha Keatings, 44, who had been an investigator for 10 years—ever since the hotline opened—a longevity record unlikely to be equaled. Pat Richardson was bombarded with questions about the hostage kids when she arrived. There wasn’t much to say, though. It was just another case.

“Well, c’mon, girl,” Eartha said. “Something must have happened.”

“He shot their mama,” Pat shrugged. “They were scared.”

Eartha’s departure was a landmark, the sort of event that made everyone wonder about basic things, like how long they would last. She had been an institution; no one could imagine the department without her. Eartha’s Rules—Be Cool, Don’t Get Angry With a Client, Don’t Get in Too Deep, Don’t Take It Home—had been the tacit ideal. New investigators aspired to be like her, especially younger blacks like Pat Richardson.

“I see a lot of myself in you,” Eartha told Pat after the others had gone home that night.

“That means a lot,” Pat replied. “I’d like to think so.”

But even though Pat tried to play by Eartha’s Rules, her emotions kept getting in the way. She was tough—sometimes too tough—with the parents, and soft—sometimes too soft—with the kids. “I’ve lost it at times,” she admits with a sigh. “I’ll call a client ignorant or worse. I can be a real bitch, but I just can’t stand passive women. Sometimes I just want to slap some sense into them. You know, you’ll get an obvious case of sexual abuse and the woman saying, ‘My husband wouldn’t do that, my daughter got it off the TV.’ No way. They don’t have that kind of detail on TV. You see women getting beat up and going back for more. Even worse, letting their kids get beat up again and again. There are times I’ll go to the hospital, and the doctors show me pictures of what some turkey did to a kid. I’m supposed to look and I’ll try. I’ll peek. But I can’t. It just turns my stomach. I can’t believe the way some people live.” And then with a laugh: “I’m just a country girl.”

Actually she was born in Oakland, Calif., but her parents divorced when she was very young and Pat went home with her mother to the small rural town of Troy, Mo. “I would spend the summers with my dad, who is the vice-principal of a high school in Louisville. My mother is a scrub nurse in surgery, and I grew up wanting to do something like that. I didn’t like emptying bedpans though.” After graduating from Central Missouri State University in 1975, Pat had a series of social work jobs in Kansas City. She worked in a group home for emotionally disturbed boys but left after one of them tried’ to stab her. She worked in the welfare department and as a child abuse treatment worker. Her favorite job was family planning. “You could see results,” she says. “I worked with teenagers, and you could see them learning to be responsible. But I got bumped from that by the Reagan budget cuts and so I became an investigator in 1982.”

Very quickly she established herself as one of the best. “Pat does tend to get more involved than some of the others,” says Anita Donaldson, her supervisor, “but she’s probably more perceptive too. Often I’ll give her the tougher cases because I know she can handle them. Pat’s 20 cases a month are a lot more emotionally exhausting than another investigator’s 25.”

Twenty cases a month—a case a day—doesn’t sound like much. But the investigator has to interview every member of the immediate family and visit the home in each case—and then fill out a small mountain of paperwork, as many as seven different forms. There are court appearances and hospital visits. Worst of all, there are the continual confrontations with frightened kids and with parents who may or may not have done something unspeakable. A lot of the cases are nuisance calls to the hotline, personal vendettas: former spouses looking for custody, teenagers making trouble for mama’s new boyfriend. These have increased dramatically in the past year as child abuse and incest have become common fare on TV. “It’s frustrating when people use us like that,” Pat says. “If it weren’t for the little ones who are helpless, this job would get old very quickly. I’m sure not hanging around for the money.”

How much does she make?

“None of us likes to say,” she says. “It’s too embarrassing.”

It is pretty embarrassing. A child abuse investigator makes from $1,202 to $1,538 per month in the state of Missouri. “Most of us figure you have a choice: Get married, get a roommate or get a second job,” Pat says. “I work nights and weekends doing credit checks for a department store. It’s not so bad. When I first started here, I worked nights as a janitor. There isn’t a single one of my friends who knows what I do and what I get paid who doesn’t think I’m crazy.”

There are times when Pat will drive through Kansas City and its prim suburbs and imagine a whole metropolis filled with people bouncing each other off walls. There are times when Pat will walk the streets and see nothing but perverts. “The job doesn’t affect my private life—with two jobs, I don’t have much of a private life,” she says but quickly recants: “Actually that’s not quite true. When I go back home to Troy and see my nieces and nephew—my brother’s kids—everyone thinks I’m paranoid, asking questions about the babysitter and all.”

But then, in Kansas City, she is constantly reminded of her nieces and nephew. There was one little girl in particular—half black, half Asian—who crawled onto her lap, hugged and kissed her and very obviously needed a different sort of love than the kind her father had been giving. “She wanted to come live with me, and there was something about her I just couldn’t resist,” Pat recalls. “I decided to take her to the library, to show her on a map the country where her mother still lived. At the court hearing—she was going to live with her grandparents—I told the treatment worker that I wanted to take the girl out, and he got real angry. I was lectured by the supes about getting in too deep emotionally. I haven’t done it since, but there are times when I’m tempted. You see innocent kids raised in such filth and stupidity and there’s nothing you can do but cry.”

In a way, though, Pat Richardson is more subtly affected by the parents than the children. “They cry a lot, the fathers,” she says. “You’ve got the criers, deniers and liars. ‘Didn’t know I was doin’ nothin’ wrong,’ they’ll say. Or, ‘Was just teachin’ her about sex.’ But they know. Sooner or later they’ll break down and start to cry: ‘I’m sick, I need help.’ And I’ve reached a point where I just don’t believe them anymore. And more scary than that, sometimes I’ll walk in a house on something other than sex abuse, and I’ll take one look at the guy, and I’ll know. I’ll sit down with the kids and start talking about something else, then get around to asking about their private parts, and sure enough…”

All of which leads to something that Pat would rather not think about: the way the job has affected her view of men. She’d like to be married; obviously she wants children of her own. But she sometimes wonders if she’s grown too hard. Her closest friends are single, professional women. “They are smart and accomplished,” she says. “They are not the sort of women who’d get beat up by a guy and go back for more. And we’ll wonder: Can this be a coincidence? These women are single—I’m single—and all those passive women I see every day are married. Is that what men want?”

For a time last summer it became too much. The cases were piling up. She was weeks behind in her paperwork. She seemed always close to tears. She was light-headed and tired and unable to sleep. She thought it was diabetes. “Pat,” the doctor said, “are you working like this because you have some sort of goal, or are you just working to be working?”

“The Mom says the girl crawled into the sink with the hot water on,” an investigator named Mary Kay Nolan told Pat. It was a slow day in February on the Football Field. “That’s how she burned the soles of her feet.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Why do they always think we’re so dumb?” Mary Kay said.

Pat looked across at her deskmate, Pam Gibson, working furiously on a CA/N-4 form—writing page after page of descriptive addenda. Pam was in danger of burning out before she’d been on the job a year. “You writing a novel?” Pat asked. She’d been trying to get Pam to ease up, having noticed tears in her eyes more than a few times lately. “What you got today?”

“This one should be great,” Pam said, waving a thick file. “Ten kids. Half a dozen investigations.”

“I’ve got two—in Eastern Jackson County, my favorite place,” Pat said. Eastern Jackson County was predominantly white, and in some backwoods precincts they didn’t take kindly to black caseworkers from the city telling them how to raise their kids.

The first case was a classic: Teenage girl complaining that Mama’s new boyfriend had felt her up—three months earlier. After interviewing the principals, Pat said: “I believe her. He didn’t have his story straight. But why did she wait so long to report it? She says she didn’t want to get Mom in trouble. I’ll bet.”

The second case sounded more serious: a teenage girl badly beaten—with a broom handle—by her mother. Pat visited the mother and daughter in late afternoon of an icy, gray day. The girl explained that her mother had never been violent before—and had good cause this time. “The Mom raised two daughters by herself, saved money for their college educations,” Pat said later. “Then she found out that the older girl had given her college money to her boyfriend, and she just freaked. The younger daughter got in the middle, trying to break it up, and she was the one who got hit.”

“You know, you’re easy to talk to,” the daughter told Pat. “I’ve been thinking of going into your kind of work after college. What’s it like?”

“The pay is lousy, the hours are brutal and the stress is humongous,” Pat said. “Aside from that, it’s not bad.”

They talked for nearly an hour. “It’s so rare I get to see a good Mom-and-daughter relationship,” Pat said later. “When you find one, you want to hold on to it. I could’ve stayed all night.” ?