The Metro North train pulled into Grand Central Station at mid-morning. The ride from Poughkeepsie to New York City wasn’t bad, as most of the people who commuted to work had been on the earlier two runs. Steve and Allen were just a bit nervous, both trying their best not to show it. Neither could tell what Father Paul was thinking or feeling; he kept a straight poker face and didn’t speak at all during the journey. This was their first trip to the Federal District Court at Foley Square, and they were avidly hoping it wouldn’t be their last. They were certain they’d dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on the civil rights lawsuit they’d filed.
It had taken them five months of poring through the skimpy case files that had been delivered back in June, then research the appropriate Federal forms to see how to write the suit and, after the Court had agreed to a preliminary hearing and sent instructions on how to proceed, serve the papers to each of the named parties. They wished they hadn’t had to do it, that they’d been able to put an end to the nightmare of having Child Protection Services take their respective children, but that proved to be impossible. Every time they knocked down a claim by CPS in the Family Court, another took its’ place, coming out of thin air. When the sexual abuse allegations surfaced, they knew they had no other choice. They’d had to find a way to get enough of the records to put the suit together. And they’d gotten those records, though not by their own efforts. They still didn’t know who sent them, nor had they even seen whoever delivered them.
Steve thought about how much he’d learned from Allen as they rode toward Foley Square on the subway. First there was the necessary crash course on how the so-called protection system operated to deprive poor people of their right to raise their children, but left the more well-to-do alone because they had the means to fight back. Then there were the discussions on how to deal with that corruption not only for their own and their children’s benefit but also for all the other people caught up in the bullshit. And their work on the lawsuit and learning how write the lawsuit, file the papers, and serve their opponents.
They’d found enough people to serve the caseworkers, the police officers, and the doctors involved in the case, so that they didn’t have to spend funds they didn’t have on certified mail with return reciept requests. That left the few people they couldn’t get access to, like the Commissioner of Social Services for the county. Him, they’d had to serve by mail, as they couldn’t get access to his office or the parking garage in back of the social services building. And the attorney handling their family court cases had a knack for making herself scarce, so she also had to be served by mail.
But now it was coming together. Hopefully. In a few hours, they would find out if the Federal Court would accept the suit or dismiss it.
They walked through the metal detectors, then found the building directory. They found the elevator to the right floor, went up to the courtroom. Steve and Allen went in, while Father Paul sat on a bench outside the courtroom, not wanting to be seen as part of the suit.
It came as no surprise that a representative of Social Services was there; the other man they didn’t know, but surmised that he was the attorney for Dutchess County. In that, they were correct. The County had assigned their top lawyer, the head of their legal department.
After what Steve thought were surprisingly cordial introductions, the bailiff called them to order. “All rise for the Honorable Kirk Lynwood. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York is now in session.”
As this spiel was completed, the judge had arrived at his dais and taken his seat. He banged the gavel once, and the bailiff called their case.
“The Court will now here the preliminary arguments in Hall and Winthrop, acting pro se, on behalf of minor children Martin Winthrop, Nathan Allen, Josiah Allen, and Heath Allen, versus Dutchess County Department of Social Services Commissioner Joseph Bertoli, Deputy Commissioner Bashir Cameron...”
The attorney for Dutchess County interrupted. “If it please the Court, your honor, and if the Plaintiffs agree, I move that we wave the complete reading of Respondents in the interest of efficiency of time, and stipulate the complete list without prejudice.”
The judge looked at the attorney as he spoke. “We will accept that motion and stipulation on the part of the Defendant’s attorney, Counsellor; this Court does not have respondents. Provided, of course, that Plaintiffs concur. Otherwise, we will hear the entire reading.” He then directed his gaze at Steve and Allen.
Allen rose and stated, “Plaintiffs agree to the motion, Your Honor.”
The judge said, “Motion accepted. Now let’s get to the basis of this Complaint. Plaintiffs will begin. Defendants,” he emphasized the word again, “will reply, and Plaintiffs will close out this session. But keep it short, gentlemen. I have no time or patience for long explanations or irrelevancies.”
Steve and Allen left the courthouse feeling jubilant. Father Paul stood up and asked how it went. They explained that the judge had conditionally accepted their lawsuit, which was more than they’d expected, especially since they were acting on their own, without lawyers. But the next part would not be easy. They had a choice of actions. They could use interrogatories, which were written questions for each of the defendants, who would be required to respond to them within ten business days of receipt. Or they could choose to interrogate each defendant in person, on tape and with a certified stenographer. That would cost money they didn’t have, unless they could find someone who would volunteer.
They had sixty days to do this and return to the Court for another session. The Court would then decide whether to continue the case or dismiss it. At issue was if they could put together enough evidence to break the qualified immunity of the defendants; that is, to overcome the presumption that they were only doing their jobs and were therfore immune from prosecution. They thought they knew how to do that, but neither were sure of it. All they could do was the best they could.
The priest took them to the United States headquarters of CACINA, the Catholic Apostolic Church In North America. This was the denomination in which he was ordained. It was little known outside its own membership, as it was associated with the Catholic Apostolic Church of Brasil, which itself had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church a very long time ago. He wanted to introduce them to his ecclesiastical mentors, especially the bishop who had ordained him. But that luminary, though outwardly civil, had seemed very cold and unwelcoming. Steve wondered if perhaps they had been contacted by CPS and told a bunch of bullshit.
After they left, heading back to Grand Central, Father Paul confirmed Steves’ supposition. He said that they’d contacted him to ask about the allegations, and would be in touch with their decision on his position in the Church. They were concerned, of course, that the witch hunt against the Roman Church would bleed over onto them. Paul had thought that if they met Steve and Allen, they would be able to make a more clearcut judgment based on what they actually saw rather than what CPS told them.
As it turned out, the bishop suggested that Paul should take a vacation from his calling. To Steve and Allen, this came as no surprise, but it created some tension, pitting Paul temporarily against Steve and Allen, blaming them for getting him involved in the first place. Allen said that was probably part of the County’s strategy of divide and conquer.
Back outside Grand Central, they stopped in the Burger King on East 42nd
Street. The girl who took their order caught Steves’ eye; he thought she bore a slight resmblance to his dead wife, and immediately closed himself off, trying to hide his grief. Allen and the priest saw this, glanced at each other, and silently agreed that they needed to get their friend out of there. They paid for their food and went down into the station to await the next train back to Poughkeepsie. And they talked Steve back from the brink of wherever his unresolved grief was taking him. Unresolved, in large part, because Dutchess County had taken his son from him.
A week later, during a visit with his son, Martin told Steve that he was afraid of his new foster parents’ son. When Steve asked why, Martin told him that the older boy, who was an only child, was picking on him, especially at bedtime, as they slept in the same room. This brought an interruption in the visit.
The door to the visit room opened. The social worker, Miss Garfield, stood in the entrance. “Mr. Winthrop, you’re not permitted to talk about foster care during these visits. You’ve been warned before about prohibited behavior.”
Steve looked up at her and said in a conversational tone, “Fine, we can discuss it after the visit. Bring your new supervisor along, too. It might be interesting.”
“In what way?” Garfield asked suspiciously.
Steve smiled slyly. “I’d like to see if she makes the same mistake Miss Dillon made. Too bad she’s not a supervisor any more. I understand she was transferred to intake in the Medicaid department. She should have been fired.”
The new supervisor came in to Garfields’ office. “I’m Diana Simonetti. I have about five minutes, Mr. Winthrop,” she said sternly.
Steve smiled diarmingly. “Fine, I can do that. My son told me he was afraid, that the foster parents’ son, who I understand is older that Martin, is picking on him. That’s not acceptable, and I want something done about it. I also don’t appreciate being told that I can’t talk about his expressed fears with him. If he wants to talk to me about something, I’m going to listen and respond in what I see as an appropriate manner.”
Simonetti pursed her lips, reminding Steve of a teacher he’d had in high school who had no sense of humor. “As Miss Garfield explained to you on a number of occasions, you must follow the rules, Mr. Winthrop. Otherwise we will terminate your visits with your son.”
“Yes, so I’ve been told. First off, he’s my son, not yours. And second, if you do terminate my visits, I’ll be glad to being the matter up in family court and see what the judge says. By now I’m sure you’re aware that i’ve filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against this agency and all the people who have violated my rights and my sons’ rights. So go ahead and terminate my visits. Even if the family court judge agrees with you, there’s still the federal court.”
The supervisor looked like she might explode. She took a long moment to get her anger under control, then said, “We’ll look into the matter. I’m sure we could find an alternate placement for the child.”
“How about home with me where he belongs?”
“That is the long-term goal. But you’re not ready to have custody t the present time.”
“Says you. But you’ll forgive me if I disagree.”
“You’re being combative, Mr. Winthrop. That alone tells me you’re not ready to have custody.”
“I wouldn’t be combative if you people would do the right thing, Diana. Now I expect you to do something about this problem my son is having, since you won’t let me do anything.” Steve stood up, looked her in the eyes, and added, “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Then he left, mindful of the stares following him.
“We got a problem Steve.” Allen was agitated. Again. He seems to get that way a lot, Steve thought. But then again, look at what was going on in his life. Hell, in both of our lives.
“What is it, Al?”
Allen took off his coat and threw it on through the door into his room none too gently. “You remember me saying they weren’t considering my sons’ background when they placed them in foster homes?”
“Yeah, I remember. I also remember you telling me they did find a mixed-race couple to put them with.”
“Yeah, they did. The problem is the people they found. I just had a talk with Shorty. She said she saw Marcus and James. They were with a couple she knows, Stacy and Willis Knowles. She’s white, and Willis is black. Shorty also said that Stacy is a hooker, and Willis is her pimp.”
Steve looked up and exlaimed, “What? How the hell? Aren’t they supposed to do background checks before they certify someone as a foster parent?”
“Yep. They are. But apparently they were in a rush to find someone that they thought would satisfy me so I’d stop bugging them about it.”
“Damn, that’s fucked up, bro!”
“Damn right it’s fucked up. And they won’t tell me anything about how they’re doing in therapy either. They know those boys are A.D.D. and A.D.H.D.! They need their father, not some ho and her fuckin’ pimp!”
“Okay, so what do we do now?”
“I don’t know, man. I think I might dig out my camera and do some checking, see what I can find out for sure.”
“We need to finish these interrogatories for the lawsuit, bro. I have no idea what questions to ask.”
Allen sighed loudly. “Yeah, I know. But we still got time. I need to do this.”
Several hours later, Allen returned to the house. He looked pretty tired, but he had a smile on his face, too.
Steve asked, “What did you find out?”
“Well, they got a house out behind Saint Francis hospital, and it seems to be pretty clean and quiet. But the neighbors don’t like them much, say there’s a lot of coming and going late at night. Apparently one of Stacys’ friends watches the boys while they’re out.”
“Maybe we can get our friends to do some checking.”
“I thought of that. Let’s give them a call.”
Tracy Williams sat at the table in the Big Tomato, wondering how much to tell. Charlie had told her not to divulge too much, but left it to her discretion. There was a distinct possibility that the Knowles couple could be brought up on fraud charges, and if she said anything, word might get out. But Tracy thought Charlie was being too paranoid; she didn’t think Steve or Allen would violate their trust. After all, her team was helping them with their situation, even though it was actually part of a much larger investigation.
She’d decided on giving them a copy of the report she’d written on the Knowles couple, and trust their discretion. It was an edited version of the full report, the one she’d send to Washington. It left out the doctoring of the receipt books Willis had engaged in so that he’d get more money from his part-time job. And the job itself, driving a taxi, was really a cover for running a few prostitutes, including his wife, Stacy. Steve and Allen didn’t need to know about that; it had little, if anything, to do with getting their kids back.
Such were her thoughts while the two men ran down their activities and told of the progress they’d made, which was very little. They still hadn’t finished writing the questions for the interrogatories, and the federal courts’ deeadline was fast approaching. They only had a couple weeks to finish and get the written answers, which the defendants had ten days to fulfill, before going back to Foley Square.
They finished their tandem account, and Tracy handed the folder to Steve. “I think you’ll find this interesting,” she said. “We followed the Knowles couple, together and separately, with cameras and parabolic microphones. You’ll see in that folder the photos of them with their … uh... clients, and a tape recording of several transactions, including Tracy Knowles in action with those clients. As the legal terminology puts it, ‘in flagrante delicti’.”
“In the act’. Nice way to put it. More correctly, ‘caught in the act.’ Literally, ′with the crime still blazing’.” Steve smiled shyly. “I took two years of Latin in high school. At one point, I wanted to be a lawyer.”
“No wonder you did so well writing that lawsuit,” she said. “I’ve always liked educated men.”
Steve quickly flipped through the photos, glanced at the tape and transcripts, then passed them over to Allen. Then he looked directly at the beautiful federal agent. “It’s a joint effort, Tracy. Like I think I said before, Allen sees the overall picture, and I break it down into the details and write it up. After this is all over, we might write a book about it. An action drama. We’ll write it as fiction, change the names but keep the real events as they happened.”
“Why not write it up as it is, as the truth?”
Allen looked up from the materials in the folder and answered. “Tracy, there are a bunch of books already written on the subject. Relatively few people are reading them. The sales figures are low compared to action, drama and suspense stories. We can reach more people with that kind of story.”
“I see your point.” She glanced at her watch. “Well, guys, I have to go. Work to do. You know. See ya later.”
Allen turned his attention back to the folder, but he saw her wink at Steve just the same. “Hey, bro, she likes you.”
Steve watched her stop at the register to pay her tab. Without changing his focus, he said, “Nah, she’s just being friendly.”
“Trust me, man. That was not a ‘just being friendly’ wink.”
“Right. I’m sitting here, not even making minimum wage because I’m working part time, and she works for the federal government. Why would she be interested in me?”
“She sees your potential. And she likes what she sees.”
“Yeah, sure,” Steve replied as he watched her finish paying and leave.
When Tracy had gone out the door, the waitress, Lizzie, walked over to them. “Your friend just paid your tabs and bought you breakfast. How do you like your eggs?”
When Lizzie left to put their order up at the grill, Allen said, “You just watch and see. She’ll find a way to get some time with you. Trust me; I know what I’m talking about.”
“In my dreams, maybe, Al. This is real life. Women, especially the ones with good-paying jobs, don’t go for guys like me who can’t even get anything above the minimum wage.”
“You’d be surprised, dude.”
“Okay, Al, what do you think is going to happen now?”
Allen stopped walking, not exactly a smart thing to do in Manhattan during the business day. “I don’t know, Steve. I thought we put together a good case why we didn’t get the interrogatories done. We don’t know what questions to ask. Right now we did the only thing we could do. We told the judge what the problem is, and asked for a pro bono attorney. The judge could grant the request, or he could dismiss the case. Either way, we’re good to go. Duchess County’s answer gave us information they didn’t intend us to have. With that, we can go back into family court and beat them over the head with their own documentation. That bit about the caseworker taking pictures of Martin. Did you know about those?”
“Hell no, I didn’t know about it. I would have told you if I did. We’ve already discussed that.”
“Yeah, I know. I just needed to bring it up again to help me get a clear picture, and to help you see the game they’re playing. They think we’re stupid, Steve. So we have to show them we’re not stupid. Ignorant maybe, but not stupid. Therre are things we don’t know yet, but now our ignorance is a good deal less than it was. We know now what they’re doing, and we have a pretty good idea why. Think back to what we read in their answer. Where did the initial report to the state central registry originate?”
“The day care center.”
“Right. And where was the first foster home they put Martin in?”
“Delafield Street. Where … oh shit! Deena is his teacher in the day care! Are you saying she filed the report? Oh, god damn, I’ll kill that bitch!”
“No you won’t. But you will rake her over the coals. She’ll never work with children again. Not in any official capacity, anyway. Remember Martin telling you about the doll? And the response you got when you called the central registry to file a report? They covered it up; there was no investigation. Because they can’t investigate themselves, and when they certified her as a foster parent, your report implicated them as incompetent and complicit in aiding in the perpetration of false allegations.”
“Okay, I can see that. But why didn’t they just dismiss the report against me from the beginning, when they knew it was bogus?”
“Think about what happened to you. Why are you living with me now?”
“My Section 8 housing was cut off because Martin’s not in my custody.”
“Right. Now let me tell you something. They weren’t supposed to do that, because by their own documentation, you not having physical custody was supposed to be temporary. They wrote that their plan was to re-unite you with your son. By taking away your eligibility for Section 8, they left you with no place to live, or so they thought. But they didn’t figure on me. But there’s more. What about the Social Security?”
“I’m still getting mine.”
“Yes, but they’re getting Martins’, aren’t they? The papers they filed in this lawsuit included the letter to the Social Security Administration requesting that Martins’ benefit go to them because they have physical custody.”
“I’ll be a son of a bitch! But why would they do that and not inform me? I mean, even the answer I got when I asked at the Social Security office said they couldn’t tell me where the money was going. What the fuck, man? What’s my piddling little bit of change going to do for them?”
“You bucked the system, man. They can never forgive you for that. Same with me. But they forgot that they creted me. I was raised in the system.”
“So again we come to the conclusion that the system needs to be changed. And again I ask how? We’re just a couple regular guys trying to save what’s left of our families.”
“Like I said before. Destroy the system. Build a new system, one that works like it’s supposed to. Retrain the caseworkers and supervisors, those who can be retrained, anyone else who has anything to do with the issue. And end the blanket acceptance of anonymous reporting, since it’s obvious that’s being abused as well. Our own investigations on behalf of other people caught in the system has proven that.” Allen looked at his watch. “I think we better get inside, it’s almost time for the train back to Poughkeesie.”
The phone call came from the cable TV office informing them that they would be doing the ‘Local Events’ show in two weeks time.
The cable TV debut of Allen Hall and Steven Winthrop finally arrived. The shows’ host, Albert Warrick, shook their hands vigorously and welcomed them to the studio. The set was done up to look like a living room, with three plush chairs, a couple end tables, and a matching coffee table.
Warwick said, “We have about an hour before air time, fellas. Let’s go over some of the material we want to cover and a brief review of the blocking and rundown while my makeup person gets you ready for the cameras. My director will tell you where to sit and how to sit for the best shots. It’s important to be as still as possible when you’re not talking. At about 15 minutes, we have a public service announcement we have to make; that’ll only take about half a minute, then back to the program.”
They finished everything up just in time, and everyone took their places. Three cameras were ready to roll, the books Steve and Allen had brought were placed just right on the coffee table. There was “Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War On Child Abuse” by Richard Wexler; “Child Protection at the Crossroads: Child Abuse, Child Protection, and Recommendations for Reform” by Susan Orr; and “Accusations of Child Sexual Abuse” by Hollida Wakefield and Ralph C. Underwager. There was also a folder with newspaper clippings about the McMartin Preschool trial in Los Angeles, detailing the prosecution of alleged mass child sex abuse at a day care center.
The director called, “And … Action!” The cameras started rolling. Warwick looked into the camera directly in front of him and said, “Welcome to this week’s edition of Local Events. I’m your host, Albert Warrick. Today our guests are Allen Hall and Steve Winthrop, founders of the Mid-Hudson Chapter of VOCAL, Victims Of Child Abuse Laws.” He turned toward the guests and asked, “Allen, what can you tell us about VOCAL?”
“First, I want to say thank you for inviting us to your show, Albert. VOCAL, simply put, is an advocacy organization for people who have been falsely accused of child abuse and neglect.”
“I understand that. But why is it needed?”
“Consider that in all areas of law, there’s the possibility of false accusations. Child abuse is no different. In fact, it’s more likely, because the laws and rules are set up in such a way that the social workers are not accountable to anyone, and they’re usually immune to prosecution because they’re presumed to be just doing their jobs. But they do their jobs in a biased manner, looking at the financial state of their so-called clients, how clean is the house, how much food is in the fridge and cupboards the day before payday. And in our cases and many others, whether the family is biracial.”
“I see. Tell me something about your cases then. You first, Allen.”
They went through the show telling the basics of their cases and how they came to be working together, then talking about possible ways to correct the system, referencing the books they’d brought with them and individually holding each book up to the camera. They also discussed the impact of the McMartin Preschool case in California, how it was creating a panic across the country on both sides of the issue. And they stressed repeatedly that in days gone by, many of the things that people were taken to family court for were tried in criminal courts, especially physical and sexual abuse of children; but that the family courts had a lower standard of evidence. Preponderance instead of beyond a reasonable doubt. They also explained that hearsay was allowed in family court, where it would not be permitted in criminal procedings.
All in all, it was a good show, and Warwick ended it with an exhortation for people to call their representatives in Congress and the state legislature to demand that the laws be changed to protect innocent families. Al and Steve left feeling good about it. They went to T.J.’s for a pizza to take home, then sat up watching some music videos on TV.
But the next day, they were back at work, going through the possibilities of what could happen next. With the system the way it was, there was really no telling how things would go. Would they seek some kind of retribution? Allen thought probably, so they discussed possible counters and preventive measures they might take.
Two weeks later, they were hit with another problem. Allen got word that CPS was going to accuse him of molesting two of his sons. But he wasn’t sure about the source of the information, one of the janitors in the Social Services building. So he would wait and see.
Allen came in, looking through the mail. “We got a certified letter from Foley Square,” he announced while openning the envelope. He read the paper, then said, “Our request for pro bono representation has been denied, and the case has been dismissed wothout prejudice.”
Steve took a minute to digest this, then asked, “Without prejudice? What’s that mean?”
“It means we can file again once we correct the errors we made.”
“What errors? Does it say?”
“Only one listed. ‘Plaintiffs failed to establish facts sufficient to prove color of law.’ That means we didn’t break through the presumption of innocence. We need to prove that they’re using their positions of authority to advance their own agenda, and show how it violates the law. Apparently we didn’t convince the court that is what’s going on. But they’re giving us a chance to correct that.”
“Damn. How do wo do that?”
“We don’t have to. The papers they filed with their answer to our suit gave us enough information to beat them in their own back yard. In the family court and through administrative hearings.”
“What administrative hearings?”
“What they call fair hearings. You’ve done a couple of them, right? So we do some more. We hit them with their own abuse of legally mandated procedure. Then we use the results of those to bolster our arguments in family court.”
“Okay, what procedures did they abuse?”
“To start with, they’re supposed to offer services that would prevent the need for the removal of the children. They didn’t do that in either of our cases. They assumed there was abuse before there was ever an investigation.”
“I can see that. But they’ll argue that their investigation showed abuse and that will justify the removals.”
“If that was so, where’s the evidence? Why hasn’t it come out yet? It’s been almost a year for me and over a year for you. Since they won’t show it, they have to be hiding something. And we know what it is; it’s the lack of evidence.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”
Steve had been visiting his son regularly and with minimal supervision on the grounds of the Childrens’ Home of Poughkeepsie since he’d been moved there in February. The visits had gone well enough that the Homes’ caseworker assigned to him had approved increasing the visits form every other week to every week, as well as incrasing the time from one to two hours. After each visit, they met with the caseworker in her office.
Mary Watson was not pleased with the visit today. Neither was Steve, for that matter. Martin had acted out for the first time with his father, refusing to play like he did at every previous visit. Finally, at the end of the two hours, as they were walking toward Mary Watsons’ office, Martin said, “I hate you.”
Steve stopped in his tracks and grabbed the boys’ arm, turning him around to face him. “What did you say?”
“I hate you.”
Steve took a deep breath, then asked, “Why do you hate me, Martin?”
“Because you let CPS take me away, and you let them put me in here with all these other kids. You won’t take me home to live with you. You’re my daddy, but you don’t want me with you. That’s why I hate you!” Then Martin pulled away from Steve and ran toward the office entrance.
Steve took off after him, catching up just before he reached the door. He took the boy by the arm and turned him around again to look at his face. He saw the tears rolling down Martins’ cheeks. “Martin, I do want you home with me. But I can’t take you right now. If I do, I’ll be arrested and taken to jail. Then you’ll never see me again because the court will order me to stop being your father. I know you don’t understand this, but I’m doing the best I can to get you back home. You just have to be patient, son. Just hang in there a while longer, okay?”
Martin looked up into his fathers’ eyes. “How much longer, daddy? I want to go home now!”
“I don’t know, son. But I think maybe by your next birthday, if everything goes right.”
“I promise I’ll do my very best. Is that good enough for now?”
The child wiped his face with one hand, brushing away most of the tears. “I guess so. I don’t really hate you, daddy.”
“I know, son. You’re just really angry. So am I. But we have to work together to get you home again. You have to follow the rules here; that’s your job. Can you do that?”
“Good. Now let’s go see Mrs. Watson.”
In the social workers’ office, Steve told Mary Watson what had happened. She asked each of them how they felt about it, and each said they didn’t like it but they’d promised each other they’d each do their part to get Martin back home again.
Then Steve said, “Mrs. Watson, I have something I want to show Martin while we’re here with you.”
“As long as it doesn’t harm your son, Mr. Winthrop.”
Steve nodded, then reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out two pictures. He showed the first to Martin. “Martin, do you know who this is in the picture?”
The boy looked, then looked up at his father. “No, Daddy, I don’t know him.”
“Okay, son, that’s all right. Now look at this other picture. Do you know who that is?”
Martin looked, then smiled. “Yeah, that’s Uncle Paulie! Can he come and see me, daddy?”
“No, I don’t think Mrs. Watson will let him come here. But when you get home, Uncle Paulie would love to see you.”
The child thought about that for a few seconds, then said, “Okay, daddy.”
Steve then passed the pictures to the caseworker. “Forgive me for springing this on you without advance notice, but I had to prove something to you. Those pictures are of Allen Hall and Father Paul Cantor, both of whom CPS claims abused Martin. As you saw yourself, Martin doesn’t even know Allen. That throws some serious doubt on anything that agency told you about my case.”
Mary smiled, looking relieved. “Mr. Winthrop, I have to tell you that as soon as we got your case record here at the Childrens’ Home, we knew it was garbage. Nothing in the record adds up to anything that would lead us to believe you did anything out of line with your son. I’ve spent the past ten months trying to gain your trust so that we could work together to end this situation and get Martin back home where he belongs.”
Steve looked askance, hopeful but suspicious. “Really? You’re not just blowing smoke at me, are you?”
“I know after what you’ve been through, you have no reason to trust social workers. But I don’t work for CPS; I work for the Childrens’ Home, and our job and our desire is to put families back together whenever possible. You can trust me.”
“I’d like to trust you, but it’s not going to be easy.”
“I understand that. So to facilitate that trust, I’m going to trust you. I got permission from the senior social worker here to let you take Martin off campus at your next visit. If it goes well, you’ll be able to go off campus at every visit from here on out, until the Family court says grants you custody. But you’re not to take him near Mr. Hall or Father Cantor this time; if you follow the rules I’ve laid out, that restriction will disappear. But for this first time, I can get you tickets to see Aladdin in the Galleria Mall movie theater on South Road. You’ll pick him up at ten o’clock and have him back here by six that evening. But there’s one more condition, and it’s on Martin.” She turned to the boy. “You have to follow the rules here, or this deal is off. No acting out, no fighting. Is it a deal?”
Father and son agreed enthusiastically. But Steve still had one concern; he asked, “What will CPS say about this?”
Mary smiled again. “They have no control over how we handle our clients. That’s part of our contract with them.”
Steve came bursting into the house jubilantly. “Hey, Al, guess what? They’re gonna let me bring Martin here for Christmas! And if they like our progress from that, then we can do overnights on Saturdays!”
Al looked up from the book he was reading. Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse by Richard Wexler. “That’s great, Steve,” he said. “I wish they’d let my three boys come home for the holiday.” He fished through the mail on the dining table, found a letter and held it out to his friend. “Check this out. They’re claiming they found physical indications of sex abuse on my boys.”
“You sure they’re not just blowing smoke up your ass, bro?”
“Pretty sure. It’s Corey and Adam.”
“Son of a bitch! The two they put with Stacey and Willis!”
“Yeah. Them. And as much as I want to kill their asses, I’m gonna do shit the legal way. Not gonna file a central registry report like you did; you see how far that got you. Nope, I’m gonna get a copy of that medical report.”
“How are you gonna do that?”
“I have my sources. And those fuckers are gonna pay.”
The federal team listened to the tape in silence. When it was finished, Tracy turned the machine off. Then Charlie asked, “Any comments or questions?”
Marissa answered, “We have to do something. If they did anything to those boys, they need to pay.” She was visibly shaken, and only Charlie knew why, because they’d never told any of the others about that. Marty Rothman, their boss in the Bureau, knew, but he’d been there during the court procedings and had heard it all. It was one of the reasons he’d given for recruiting the both of them for this investigation.
Charlie knew that her reaction went back to the wrongful death lawsuit they’d filed when their son, Charlie Jr., died in the wrecked car all those years ago. It had come out that the foster father had molested the boy, then comitted suicide when it became clear that he would be arrested for that unthinkable crime.
“Marissa, we have to let the system do whatever it’s going to do. You know we’re not supposed to interfere.”
She threw a venomous look at her ex-husband. “We’re interfering now, helping those two men, Charlie. We might as well go all the way with it. Those people have to pay for what they did! And you know why!”
Tracy and the Boulware brothers watched. This wasn’t the first time they’d seen their team leader and his former spouse butt heads, but they’d never seen Marissa so close to flying off the handle. The knew all the jokes about hot-tempered Puerto Ricans, but had never really given them any credence. They’d learned through their lives that tempers came in all ethnicities. Still, they could tell there was something they didn’t know about the pair; Marissa’s vehemence spoke eloquently as to what that might be.
“Your feelings about this are no stronger than mine, Mare, but you know if we do anything other than what we’ve already put in motion, then it will mess up the efforts of our local compatriots. We have to let this play out, or what we’ve done will be wasted.”
She glared at him silently for a moment, then said, “You always have to be so damn logical! Pinche’ culero!” She got up and went into the bedroom they’d shared since she’d lain on the couch all those months ago, with him just holding her. She slammed the door, and they all heard the lock being turned.
Raphael chimed in, trying to break the tension. “Looks like you’re sleeping on the couch tonight, boss.”
Charlie looked hard at him. “Don’t start, Rafe. Just let it go. She’ll calm down in a bit.” Then he turned to Tracy. “See if you can get a copy of that report to our boys before Allen gets in trouble. We need both of them on the up and up.”
“Got that, Charlie.” She turned to her computer and powered it up, ready for another hack session.
Later that night, Marissa came out to find Charlie at the counter reading a copy of the medical report on Allen Halls’ children. She stopped beside him, a few feet away, and stood there until he looked at her.
“Charlie, I … I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just that I wasn’t expecting what I heard on that tape. It … brought back memories, you know?”
Charlie knew she was still upset by the thickness of her Spanish accent and the way she slurred her English. He also knew she was referring to the lawsuit they’d filed in the wrongful death of their son, Charlie Junior. It had come out that, while in foster care, the foster father had molested the boy, and then he had comitted suicide rather than be arrested, tried and sentenced to prison.
“I know, Mare. I feel the same way. But I wish you hadn’t brought that up in front of the team.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you.”
She moved a little closer, then stopped. She didn’t want to presume; after all, they’d been divorced for several years. But damn, she wanted her husband back. Then she just stepped forward and put her arms around him, laid her head on his shoulder. Charlie could feel her shaking and knew she was crying, even though she made not a sound. He hesitantly put his arms around her and held her, not all that sure of himself or her. After a few minutes, she looked up at him, into his eyes, and reached up to pull his head down to hers, his lips to her lips. As their kiss began to grow in passion, he broke off, not wanting to start something neither of them were ready for.
Marissa pulled away from him and took a deep breath. She avoided his eyes just as he was avoiding hers. To break the tension that had built up, she asked, “Where is everybody?”
“The boys are out getting some dinner, and Tracy’s taking a shower, then taking a copy of this medical report to our local boys, Steve and Allen.”
Just then, Tracy came out of the bathroom wrapped in a large bath towel. “I heard my name bein’ used in vain. Ya’ll talking about me again?”
Steve smiled. “Always; you’re such a hot topic of conversation aroud here.”
“So what’s up? Did you two kiss and make up yet?”
“Make up? Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
Tracy looked at both of them, feigning indignance. “What? No kiss? Come on, you guys, you were married before your troubles, and I know you still love each other. It’s crazy that you still sleep apart, knowing how ya’ll feel. So what gives?”
“That’s our concern, Trace. The time isn’t right yet.”
Tracy gave an exagerated forceful sigh. “Damn, when is it ever gonna be just right?” She turned around as though to walk away, then stopped. She turned back dramatically and threw up her hands, surreptitiously loosening the towel as she did so. “I know! You need something to get you going! I have just the thing!” The towel began to slide off of her slim form, and she faked surprise and pulled it back around her as though embarrassed. That was unlikely, though, as the whole team had seen each other in the baracks shower where they’d trained.
She said, “Damn, I haven’t gotten laid in a while myself, ya know. And it’s been forever since I’ve had a threesome. Just thinking about it is making me all wet inside.” She let the towel go as she sat down on one of the barstools; it stayed in place, barely held up by her minimal cleavage. “And the last time was with two other women. You know how long ago that was, Charlie.”
She began to massage her breasts through the towel, then slipped her hands under it, noting that the they were both watching. She knew that wouldn’t last, that she had to rush this scene, so she quickly but smoothly moved a hand down her belly and under the lower edge of the towel, parting it so that she was exposed. She slipped a finger between her lower lips, spreading them apart so they could be seen clearly. Then she slid that finger inside, followed by another.
Marissa tore her gaze away and glanced at Charlie, who was watching raptly as the dusky woman pleasured herself. She grabbed her ex-husband by the arm and pulled him toward the master bedroom. Tracy followed, nymphlike, and had the door slammed in her face.
Charlie laughed quietly as she shoved him roughly onto the bed and quickly stripped off her t-shirt, bra, jeans and panties and climbed on top of him. “You like that little puta negra, pendejo? I know what will take your mind off that,” she whispered roughly as she slid up his belly and chest and pressed herself onto his face, challenging his tongue to do its best.
Tracy smiled knowingly and went into her bedroom to wash herself and get dressed. On the way out of the house, she said softly to herself, “Well, my work here is done for the night.”
Tracy handed the medical report to Allen. He scanned it quickly, then thanked her. “This saves me the trouble of using my contacts. But how did you get it?”
Tracy smiled slyly. “I have ways to get whatever I want.”
Allen noted the quick glance sideways at Steve, and that Steve was oblivious. “Well, if you think so, give it your best shot.”
Steve looked at his friend, perplexed. “What are you guys talking about? Best shot at what?”
Allen looked at Tracy. “You explain it to him. I’m going to the store. You two want anything?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, “how about a Dr. Pepper?”
Tracy smiled. “Same here; it’s my favorite.”
“No problem. Be back in a while.”
A moment later, Steve was alone with Tracy. In spite of his single-minded focus on getting his son back, now that they were alone, he couldn’t help but notice that she was beautiful. He suddenly, inexplicably, felt nervous. He stammered slightly as he asked, “What were you talking about? What was that about a best shot?”
She ignored the question, or so it seemed to him, instead said, “I was married once myself. My husband, my baby son and I were shot; my husband died. You remind me of him somehow. I don’t know how, it’s nothing I can put my finger on, but there it is.”
“Okay,” Steve said; “I can understand that. That’s kind of how it was when I first met Maria, my wife. It was like I knew she was the one I’d marry. It took four years to convince her, but as you say, there it is.” He paused a moment, lost in the memory, then asked, “What about your son? You said he was a baby. What happened to him?”
“He was taken away from me by Florida’s CPS and adopted out. But he’s okay. I’ve seen him a few times, and met his adoptive family. They’re good parents, and we’re friends. I can pretty much see Danny whenever I want, when I can get away from my job.”
“They must pay you pretty well, for you to stay away from him like this.”
“I have my reasons. You could say I’m on a mission. I want so bad to tear that system apart and rebuild it so it does what it’s supposed to do. That’s why I’m on this team. In fact, without this team, I wouldn’t even be with the Bureau. But that’s another story for another time.” She half-unconsciously licked her lips as if they were dry and needed moisture. She was sure she had Steve’s attention, and she was right. “Right now I want to talk about something else.”
Steve saw the tip of the womans’ tongue and quickly shifted his vision away from the sight. That’s when he saw her fingers toying with a button on her blouse, pushing it back and forth partly in and out of the button hole. He tried to move his eyes away and found that he couldn’t; it had been too long since he’d done anything with a woman. He asked, “What else did you want to talk about?”
Tracy saw where Steve’s attention was focussed, and pushed the button all the way out of the hole and moved her fingers to the next lower button, slipping it slowly through its hole as well. “I think you know what I want to talk about, Steve,” she answered huskily.
“I... uh... I haven’t been with anyone in a long time, Tracy. I haven’t thought about it, with all that’s going on in my life.”
She moved closer to him as she said, “Well, it’s time to take a break from all that. You need to chill for a bit, and so do I.” She slowly put her arms around him, lips parted, waiting to see how he would react. It took a moment, but he raised his arms around her shoulders and bent down slightly to kiss her, softly and gently at first, then with increasing hunger and passion. After a few minutes, he picked her up in his arms and carried her up the stairs to the spare bedroom while she unbuttoned his shirt and began teasing his nipples...
Allen and Steve found an artificial Christmas tree and some inexpensive decorations at the second-hand store on the Main Mall. Steve got Italian pastries and a cake from his job at Caffe’ Aurora, courtesy of his boss; and the Childrens’ Home networked with the Salvation Army to deliver a stuffed turkey with all the trimmings to the house, so they didn’t have to cook. A few friends who had stuck by Steve throughout the ordeal bought presents, mostly clothes but also a few toys for Martin, and Steve got a sweet deal from the owner of the pawn shop on the corner of Hamilton and the Main Mall, paying only twenty dollars for an Atari game system and a dozen game cartidges.
The day before Christmas, Mary Watson drove Martin to the house in her own car. She told Steve that they’d done so well with the off-campus visits that the Childrens’ Home was going to let Martin have three days and two nights together. That was the best news yet, as far as Steve was concerned.
Christmas morning, Steve woke Martin up to open his presents. The boy had a great time, laughing and carrying on in his excitement, showing is father all the great stuff he unwrapped. They went through most of the day playing together and enjoying each others’ company. Allen joined them every so often, glad to see the joy on the childs’ face even more than the happiness his friend radiated.
Toward mid-afternoon, there was a knock on the back door. Allen went into the kitchen to answer it, and was surprised to see Tracy. “Am I too late for dinner?”
“No, I don’t think so. Steve will be glad you came.”
“I’m sure he will!”
He stepped past her and looked out the door, at the porch and then the parking lot of the Salvation Army office building. Then he asked, “Where are the rest of your team?”
“We agreed we didn’t want to overwhelm Martin. And we didn’t want him to see Marissa at this point, either, since she looks so much like his mother.”
“Good thinking. I agree with your reasoning.” He motioned her inside as he stepped back into the kitchen. “Well, come on in. He’s in the living room with his son.”
“Great! I’ve been wanting to meet the little angel!”
Steve, sitting on the floor playing checkers with Martin, looked up as they entered. He smiled and stood up. “Hi, Tracy. I thought you were gonna go see your son.”
She put a hand to her chest, pretending hurt. “You don’t want me here?”
He moved toward her, taking her hand first, then putting his arms around her as she did him. “Of course I do. I’m just surprised you changed your plans.” He kissed her, a quick peck on the lips with just a hint of tongue, then pulled back just enough to see her face.
“Danny’s in the hospital with flu and pneumonia. They have him in an oxygen tent in isolation. So here I am.”
“Wow. That’s too bad. I hope he’ll be all right.”
“I’m sure he will. He’s a strong kid, and All Childrens’ is one of the best kids’ hospitals in the country.”
“All Childrens? In Saint Pete?”
“I’ll be damned. Is that where you’re from?”
“Born and raised. Didn’t I tell you before that we’re from the same place?”
“No, you didn’t. Where did you live? What part of town?”
“Just outside Jordan Park. Not in the project though. My family had a house across the street.”
“You went to Gibbs High?”
“In my sophomore and junior years. I did my senior year at Boca Ciega.”
“You went to Bogie? Damn, that’s wild! So did I! What year?”
“71/72. Graduated with honors. That was hard, what with the riots and all.”
“I was a junior there that year. Wow, what a rush! It’s like Old Home Week or something!” Steve felt a tug on his arm. He looked, and Martin was trying to get his attention.
“Hey, Martin, I want you to meet my friend Tracy.”
“The boy looked at his father sternly. “I was wondrin’ if you were gonna interduce me, Dad.”
“I’m sorry, son. I got carried away with the conversation.”
“I know. That’s why I grabbed your arm.” Martin looked at Tracy and smiled. “Hi, Tracy. It’s nice to meet you. I’m glad my dad has a girlfriend now; he hasn’t been happy for a long time.”
Steve blushed slightly as Tracy laughed softly. “Girlfriend, huh? Is that what you want me to be for your dad?”
“Well, isn’t that what you are?”
Tracy put a finger to her temple and rubbed lightly. “Well, gee, Martin, I don’t know. Is that what you want me to be?”
“If you’re nice to my dad, yes. He needs somebody to be nice to him since my mom isn’t here any more.” He looked down at the floor and added, “She died.”
Tracy reached out with both hands, placing them gently on the childs’ shoulder. “I know. You must be sad about that.”
“Yeah. It was a long time ago, but I still miss her.”
“I bet you do. But your dad is still here, right?”
“Yeah. But I’m only visiting. After the visit, I have to go back to the Childrens’ Home. If I don’t, they’ll put my dad in jail and I’ll never see him again. I don’t want that to happen.”
Steve interrupted. “I’m not going to jail, Martin. Don’t you worry about that. And Tracy knows about CPS. She’s helping me get you back home, okay?”
“Okay, dad.” He looked up at Tracy. “She’s pretty, Dad. Is she gonna be my mom when I come home?”
Steve smiled wistfully. “I think we should all get to know each other for a while first, son. Then we’ll see. And I think it’s time for dinner. Let’s go get some of that turkey, okay?”
Martin smiled broadly. “Yeah!”
Martin ran into the dining room. Steve and Tracy followed, arms around each others’ waists.
Steve and Allen were eating at the dining room table when the knock came at the back door. Steve went to answer it. Charlie was standing there.
“Come on in, man,” Allen said, leading the way.
Charlie looked at the two men, then said, “Please tell me you had nothing to do with it.”
Steve asked, “Nothing to do with what, Charlie?”
“The car that blew up around 10:30 this morning.”
“First I’ve heard of it. I’ve been here all day. Where was it?”
“In the parking lot behind the Social Services building. It was a county car used by Child Protective Services. The last driver was Jack Overton. It blew about two minutes after he parked it. Fortunately, he was already in the building, and nobody else was out in the lot. But there were a couple windows blown out of on the first and second floor. A couple minor injuries from glass.” He looked away, then back at the two men. “Tell me you neither of you did this.”
Allen took a bite of his sandwich, looked at Steve, then said, “We’ve both been here all day, except for the ten minutes or so I went to the corner store for a couple sodas and a bag of chips.”
Charlie noted the nonchalance in Allens’ demeanor and the slight stiffness in Steves’. His awareness of body language told him that Steve knew nothing. Allen, however, was another story. “Don’t let me find out either of you had anything to do with this.” He turned around and headed back through the kitchen. As he opened the door, he heard Allen say, “Too bad Overton wasn’t in the car. If I’d done it, he would have been.”
Charlie considered going back in, but instead stepped over the threshhold and shut the door.
After they heard Charlie go down the wooden outside stairs, Steve asked, “Ok, what was that about?”
Allen looked at him inoocently. “What’s what about?”
“You know something about that car. Did you do it?”
“How could I? I wasn’t gone long enough to get even half-way to that place. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know. But I know you, too, Al.”
“Look, bro, since we did that local access talk show with about CPS and VOCAL, who’s to say that someone who saw the show didn’t do it?”
“You have a good point. But I don’t think Charlie will believe that.”
“Don’t worry about it. We both know I was here all morning. There’s no way I can be tied to that.”
“I hope not. But I wouldn’t put it past the system to try to frame either or both of us.”
“If they tried that, it wouldn’t be me. Overton was my caseworker; he was the one who coordinated the removal of my children. They’d try to pin it on me.”
“Yeah, but they know I’m working with you.”
“We’ve both got a solid alibi. I saw Henry Terry at the store this morning. And both the owner and the cashier know me, so they’d vouch for me too. Plus, I saw the Major at the Salvation Army office next door and waved to him while I was out, and he waved back. On top of that, consider that I’m not the only case Jack Overton’s working on. He must have pissed a lot of people off. Trust me, there’s nothing to worry about.”
February - May 1993
Charlie listened to the conversation from the reciever Tracy had installed in his car. When the two men stopped talking, he headed back to the safe house and told Tracy to find out all he could about Henry Terry. He figured that was a good bet because it was the first person Allen had mentioned, and both the Sally officer and the store owner were statistically unlikely to be involved in the explosion. But this issue, he thought, was peripheral to his mission, and possibly not related at all. He decided to let local law enforcement handle it, but also that he’d keep tabs on their investigation.
It turned out that Terry was a former Navy SEAL and an unemployed former truck driver who had lost his CDL licence after being pulled over for erratic driving. He blew 1.9 on a roadside breathalyser in Maryland. After getting out of jail, he’d turned bitter and started drinking and doing drugs, sometimes supplementing his meager welfare income by mugging people. He seemed to be related in some way to Allen Hall, but the connection was unclear. It was entirely possible that he had blown up the car, since the SEALS were known to be trained in the use of explosives. He may have done it at Hall’s instigation, but there was no sure way to prove that. So Charlie let it go for the time being.
The next few months were filled mostly with waiting for the family court to do its job. Steve and Allen helped the process along with administrative hearings that resolved issues of incorrect procedures that may or may not violate laws and rules set in place to help families. One set of those laws was designed to ensure that the child protection agencies make reasonable efforts to assist parents with difficulties in order to prevent the removals of children whenever possible.
One of the main problems with that is that the rules allowed the agencies themselves to determine what was reasonable; those decisions were often subject to the prejudices and beliefs of the caseworkers themselves, usually with little or no oversight from any supervisory personnel or anyone else in a position of authority over those workers.
Charlie chose to keep his team in Poughkeepsie and its environs in order to build a Federal case against the local players in the conspiracy to defraud the government through the child protective system. Vast sums of money were at stake, as Allen had explained to Steve on their last trip back from Foley Square. The team had heard them discuss it in Allens’ apartment several times, and knew that there was a component missing from their equation, something that might not necessarily cement to motives, although it did support them. That something, as the two local men figured out as Charlie and company listened in, was the use of paid physicians who would submit “findings” of abuse where there was none. This turned out to be crucial to the men winning back custody of their respective children.
In the meantime, Charlie and Marissa spent more time together, even though they remained mostly professional in the presence of the team. There was only exception to that; when the only other agent present was Tracy, they felt a little more relaxed in expressing their affection for each other.
For her part, Tracy continued to tease them in those settings, but not as blatantly as the first time. And she spent as much time as she could with Steve, including the visits with Martin, so they could all get to know each other.
On the day before Steves’ next appearance in Family Court, Tracy and Steve lay in bed after a long love-making session. Tracy ran a finger around Steve’s nipple as she said, “I can’t go up there with you; the team and I have something coming up tomorrow. I don’t know how long it will take, I’ll come by as soon as can when it’s done.”