Steve and Allen
Stephen Winthrop walked, not knowing where he was going. He only knew he had to find a way to end this nightmare. First, his wife died. Nine months later, they took his son. And his business associates were telling him to concentrate on building his business rather than trying to get his only child back from those bastards at the DSS. ‘Department of Social Services. Child Protective Services. Yeah, right. The only service they did was keeping people under their thumb,’ he thought.
He replayed the scene he’d just left in his mind.
He was in the DSS office for his bi-weekly visit with his son. Martin was only five years old, and like most boys that age, loved to play wrestle, get tickled, toss a ball. There were no balls in the little cubicle, only blocks with letters on them, like the wooden ones he’d had as a child, but these were plastic. They only allowed an hour for these visits, and he wanted to make the most of it. So they’d hugged, played with the blocks, read a story together from one of those little childrens’ books on the shelf across from the two chairs. Then Martin said, “Tickle me, Daddy!” And he’d come close and grabbed Steves’ hand, pulling it toward his belly.
Steve smiled, seeming to shut out the reality of the situation for the moment. He grabbed his son, pulled up the little shirt to expose the belly, then lowered his head, put his mouth against Martins’ belly, and blew, making that well-known sound sometimes called a raspberry. Martin laughed, and said again, “Tickle me!”
So Steve did just that, and the boys’ laughter proved contagious as Steve began laughing with his son.
Then the door opened. Steve looked up. Lacey Garfield, a shapely, twenty-something blonde social worker with curly hair and a roundish face assigned to his case, was on the threshold, disapproval written all over her face. He knew she’d been observing the visit from behind a two-way mirror.
“Mr. Winthrop, you can’t play with your son that way.”
It took a moment for the words to register in Steves’ brain, they were so out of line with what he knew of playing with young children. His own parents, really just his father, had played with him in the same way. Finally he asked, “Why not, Miss Garfield? He’s my son, and he’s not being hurt.”
“It’s our policy. You can’t wrestle or tickle, or I’ll have to terminate this visit.”
“That’s bull.” He had to struggle to not say the full word. Bullshit. “I want to speak with your supervisor.”
Garfield went back in the observation room, then came out again, followed by a portly woman around the same age, with brown hair cut short like a man would have when Steve was a kid. Garfield went in the visitation room and pulled the door closed, Steve noted with a sense of curiosity.
“Mr. Winthrop, I’m Miss Garfield’s supervisor. My name is Joan Dillon. What seems to be the problem?”
“Miss Garfield is telling me I can’t play with my son. That’s bullshit. Like I told her, Martin is my son, and I’ll play with him however we both want to play.”
“It’s a violation of our policy. You will either conform to that policy, or we will be forced to terminate this visit, and possibly limit future visits.”
“You can’t do that. You’re under court order from the family court to facilitate my visits with my son.”
“We can have that order revised tomorrow if you refuse to stick within the rules set forth for your visits.”
“What gives you the right, Miss Dillon?”
“That’s our policy. Either agree to it, or this visit is over, Mr. Winthrop.”
“Your policy, huh? Show me that policy in writing, as approved by the New York State Department of Social Services, as required by law. Otherwise we can argue this before Judge Crandall.”
“Mr. Winthrop, I don’t give a damn what the law says. You will conform to our policy, or your visits, and your parental rights, will be terminated.”
“I’ll conform to that policy when you prove it’s a legal one.”
He opened the door to the visitation room just as a big Dutchess County sheriff came around the corner. “What’s the problem, Miss Dillon?”
The woman turned her head toward the deputy. “I need you to escort Mr. Winthrop from the building, Richie. His visit is terminated and he’s refusing to leave.”
Not wanting to be arrested, Steve went, yelling to Martin, “I’ll see you on the next visit, Martin!” As he was led away, he could hear his son crying for him to come back.
Outside the building, and across the street at the Seville Diner, he reached into the inner pocket of his sport jacket and turned off the microcassette recorder, but left the external microphone strung through the jackets’ sleeve. Then he ordered a coffee and a cheese Danish.
He came out of his ruminations when he almost bumped into a man walking in the opposite direction down the sidewalk. “Excuse me,” he said as he dodged the near-collision. He looked at his surroundings and found that he was almost to the intersection of Market Street and the Main Mall, across from the Dutchess County Courthouse and caddy-corner to the Mid-Hudson Civic Center. Directly across from him sat the new Barney building, which was going to hold offices and work spaces for IBM. At least, that was the plan, as he recalled. They were supposed to build a second, identical, building behind and perpendicular to it to the north. But they hadn’t started yet.
He decided to walk up the Mall to the Texas Lunch. The owner was one of his commercial products customers, and he was hoping to get a bigger order this month. But he was having some trouble focussing on that since DSS had accused him of some really nasty things that he would never have dreamed of doing to his son, or to anyone else, child or adult.
He passed by shops and offices he knew, places he’d eaten in, shopped in. To his right was the entrance to what he called the Lawyer Hall, where the judge who had performed his wedding had his own law practice. Nearby was the frozen yogurt stand he and Maria had gone to at least once a week. And farther east, the last building on the east side of the Mall, was the empty Lucky Platt building, a turn-of-the-century department store that more recently had been home to the social services department. That changed after the roof began leaking like a sieve and the county had decided to build a new home for that agency rather than repair the damage. It took up most of the space from the green grocer to Academy Street, then down Academy most of the way to Cannon.
As he walked, trying to focus on something, anything, his mind kept wandering back to his knowledge of the city’s history. Like the fact that the new DSS building was on land that had once held the Nelson House Annex residential hotel and, next to that on the corner of Market and Church Streets, the old abandoned YMCA. They’d kept the front facade of those buildings and torn down the rest, constructing the new behind and attached to it.
’What a waste of space and money, he thought. There were so many people looking for some place to live, and they tore down a hotel that only needed minor repairs to be brought up to code! Assholes!′
His ruminations came to a halt as he neared Academy Street. There was a pair of benches behind the bus stop, back to back, with a red brick planter built between them. Sitting on the one facing Lucky Platt was someone he knew, someone who might know how he could fight to get his son back.
Colin Trumbull was a tall, thin, effeminate black man who had dropped out of law school years before. He lived on social security checks and food stamps, being diagnosed as mentally disabled due to some trauma in his past that he refused to talk about. And he was gay, which is why Steve hadn’t gone to him for help before now. He liked Colin and respected the man’s knowledge, but his homosexuality made him distinctly uncomfortable. Yet here Colin was in front of him, watching him approach.
Steve felt as if he was reaching the bottom of the barrel, but here was God giving him a means to learn what he needed to do. So maybe it wasn’t the bottom of the barrel. Maybe. The thought slipped into his awareness like a thief, trying to make him doubt. As if I don’t have enough doubt already, he chided himself.
“Hi, Colin,” he began. “I haven’t seen you in much since Maria’s funeral. How are you doing?” Even as he spoke his wife’s name, knowing that she and Colin had been the best of friends, his own hypocrisy grated on his conscience. Yet he needed this man’s help, so he set aside all other considerations. Colin had never made a pass at him, or even hinted he might, as least as far as Steve could tell; he knew he wasn’t very good at reading subtlety, so maybe a pass just went over his head.
Colin smiled, then replied in a rough, high-pitched, almost feminine voice, “Oh, you know. Back and forth to the doctor’s office for my monthly checkups. They want to see if I’m gonna to die any time soon. But I’m not gonna give them the satisfaction. I’ll still be here when they all go six feet under.” He looked at Steve with a knowing eye as he asked, “What’s up with you?”
Steve looked away for a moment, steeling himself. Then he looked back at Colin, his eyes filled with fear. “I need some help, and I don’t know where to go for it. I’m kind of hoping you might be able to point me in the right direction.”
Colin waited before answering, then purposely looked Steve up and down as if appraising his worth. He sometimes enjoyed doing this, especially when it made others uncomfortable. But this time, he had it in mind to test just how far Steve would go to fulfill his objective. Then he simply asked, “What kind of help do you need?”
Steve suddenly seemed more nervous than he’d ever been before around Colin. And Colin knew that this level of nerves, in this man, had nothing to do with Colin being gay. He was clearly afraid to say what he had to say, but Colin wouldn’t help him out with that; he had to confront his own demons, or he wouldn’t be any good for what came afterward. Steve had to at least speak the basic problem that would set him on that path.
Steve looked all around for a minute; anywhere but at Colin. Finally he looked down at his feet, then up at the man on the bench. “They took my son, Colin. They accused me of beating him. But there’s no way I would have done that. You know the law, Col, you studied it. Hell, you tried to teach me but I couldn’t do it then. Now I need to know how to fight this bullshit.”
Colin nodded to himself, satisfied that Steve would follow through, since he’d verbalized the basic problem. He didn’t know half of what Colin knew about it, but he would definitely find out.
He looked to his left, as if seeing something interesting. Then he said, “I gotta tell ya, Steve, I know about your case; the legal grapevine keeps me informed, you might say. Now, I don’t know much about family law; I left law school before we got to that part. But the man coming around the corner right now does.”
Steve looked to where Colin was pointing. There walking toward them, was a husky black man in dark, loose-fitting clothes. He looked to be about thirty or so, maybe two hundred twenty pounds, medium height. He walked with a little bit of a swagger, but not excessively so as some of the young kids did. He appeared to be fairly self-confident in the way he carried himself.
He glanced briefly at Steve and Colin, then altered his trajectory to come right up on them instead of going past.
“Hey, Col, what’s up? They let you out of Saint Francis again?”
Colin smiled and waved his hand toward the newcomer. “Aw, you know they can’t keep me locked up there long with all those nuts, Allen. They’re afraid I might start teaching them how to file a lawsuit.” He gestured toward Steve. “I think you two should get to know each other. Steve Winthrop, meet Allen Hall. If anyone can help you with your situation, he can. I’ve known him longer than I’ve known you.”
The two men looked at each other, each sizing the other up as though they might have to fight. Then Allen sat down, pointedly at a distance from both Steve and Colin. “Okay,” he asked, “What’s the situation you think I can help with?”
Colin said, “I think you should hear it from Steve. That way you can get a clearer picture of what’s needed here.”
“I want your take first, Col. I know you wouldn’t introduce us without a reason, but before I get involved, I have to know it’s legit, and not some game you’re playing.”
The gay man put on a feigned hurt look. “Moi? Play games with you? If it was like that, I’d have already had you. When I go for a man, I get him.” Then he winked slyly at Steve.
“Not this one, dude, and you know that. Now quit with the games and tell me what’s up.”
“Oh, go on and spoil my fun,” he said smiling. Then he became serious. “I met Steve about ten years ago, down at the riverfront park, through King.”
Allen interrupted. “Oh, shit. Not him.”
“Now hold up, Allen, he’s not involved in this. A few years ago, Steve married another friend, Maria Garcia. She died last year, and now the county took their kid. That’s what he needs help with. And you’re the only person I know who can help him.”
Allen looked directly at Steve as he said, “Okay, tell me what happened.”
Steve looked down at the ground again, then up at the big man. He was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts, his memories of that time, less than three months ago, when his son had been taken from him. Then he began to speak …
The funeral was a lovely affair as such things go. It was in a smallish chapel at the funeral home, seating maybe eighty, or a bit more. Almost every seat was filled, which surprised him even through his grief. All of his co-workers were there, at least of those who could get away from the store; he even saw a few of the managers. And there were a lot of friends and several neighbors. He was hugged so many times he kept thinking the next one would crush the life out of him. He didn’t remember anything the preacher said; all he recalled was feeling greatful that he’d hit all the right spots. The preacher spoke of Steve’s deceased wife’s successes in her short life. He listed the trials and tests she’d overcome, including and especially her disability. And he talked of her devotion to her husband and son. Where he learned all of that, Steve could only guess, since they didn’t attend or belong to any church.
He was given the urn with my wife’s ashes after a brief reception. The priest, Father Paul Cantor, got into the limo with him, and the owner of the funeral home drove it herself, taking them as close to Steves’ front door as possible. He felt like he was walking a gauntlet as he saw those neighbors who hadn’t come to the service standing by their doors, watching him. He could see that more than a few had tears in their own eyes. Again, he felt a sense of gratitude.
The thee days of bereavement time allowed by his job, combined with his normal two days off and the weekend, gave him a full week before he had to return to work.
Return to work he did, with his son safely in the day care center. Their lives gradually returned to something resembling normal, though of course it never really does, at least not for some time. Waking up finding your wife dead next to you does something to a man. But normal was not to be.
Steve had just gotten home from work at the K-Mart out on Route 44/55. As was his routine, he was just about to get a shower before going to pick up his son at the day care center. But just as he reached the bathroom door, the phone rang. He went to the kitchen and answered it.
“Hello, Winthrop residence.”
“Mr. Winthrop, this is Deena at the day care center. We need you to come over here right away.”
Immediately his mental radar went up. “What’s happened? Is Martin all right?”
“Yes, he’s okay. There’s someone from Social Services here who needs to speak with you.”
“You’ll have to ask him when you get here, Mr. Winthrop.”
“Okay, I’ll be there right away.” He hung up, grabbed his hat, and headed out the door, making sure, as always, to double-check the doorknob and deadbolt locks.
By the time he got to the Family Development and Day Care Center on Mill Street, he’d worked himself into a state of near-panic. Ever since Martin had been born, Social Services had been involved with his little clan. First when his wife, Maria, had had a minor breakdown while he’s been at work. And afterward, as they’d had little minor difficulties as many newly married couples and new parents did, Social Services had kept tabs on them, threatened to take Martin away, offered help, in no appreciable pattern that either Steve or Maria could see.
Steve walked into the center, headed down the half-flight of stairs to his son’s classroom, and knocked on the door. It opened almost immediately, and he nodded at the teacher, Deena, a heavyset, thirty-something woman with blonde hair and hazel eyes, as he entered the room. He looked around for Martin and saw him playing with some plastic alphabet blocks off to one side. Martin looked up, saw him and waved, said, “Hi, Daddy!”, then went back to playing.
“Mr. Winthrop.” The voice was one he hadn’t heard before; it was rather high in pitch, clearly a male voice, but with an almost feminine tone with a hard edge to it. Steve turned toward it and saw a large, almost obese man, maybe six feet tall and pushing at least two hundred eighty pounds. The man had a notebook in one hand and what looked like a camera in the other. “I need to speak with you.”
Steve watched the man carefully as he asked, “And who are you?”
“I’m Fred Davidson, with Child Protective Services.” He took off the I.D. Card dangling from a plastic cord around his thick neck and showed it to Steve, but not allowing it out of his own hand. What is he, afraid I’m gonna steal it? Steve thought.
“What’s this about, Mr. Davidson?”
“We had a report at the State Central Registry that you beat your son. I’m here to investigate that report.”
“What?” Steve asked, a little too loudly, drawing the attention of some of the children, and a rebuking gaze from the teacher, Deena. More quietly, he asked, “Who made that report?”
“An anonymous caller,” the big man answered.
“An anonymous caller? So someone just calls in and makes a claim, and you guys just run with it, even though you don’t know who it is or if the person is just mad and starting trouble, is that it? All right, I know you have a job to do. So here’s what I have to say. I have not neglected my son, I did not beat my son, and you will never find any evidence to support such a claim. I’ve never even spanked him, for crying out loud. Now make sure you write that in your report, Mr. Davidson. Is there anything else before I take Martin home?”
Davidson smiled tightly. “As a matter of fact, there is. I’m ordering you to take Martin to Vassar Brothers Hospital for a checkup. Just to make sure he’s in good health.”
“What are you talking about? If his health was bad, I’d know it. And if I didn’t, the people here at this center would tell me. I’m taking my son home. I’m going to fix him some dinner, play with him a while, then get him a bath and put him to bed. I’m going to read him a story until he falls asleep. And then I’m bringing him back here tomorrow morning before I go to work.” Steve began walking toward his son.
Davidson called to him once again. “Mr. Winthrop. If you don’t take him to Vassar, I will come to your apartment with the police and take Martin into State custody. It’s your choice.”
Steve turned back to face the big man squarely, checking almost automatically for his balance points, all his military hand-to-hand combat training coming back to him as it always did in a potential crisis. His anger was clearly visible in his face. But he calmed himself, then said, “Fine. I’ll take my son to get checked up. But you can bet you haven’t heard the last of this. I do not take kindly to threats.”
He turned back around, went to Martin. “Ready to go, son?”
The child looked up at his father, then glanced over at Davidson, a dark, frightened expression on his little face, that Steve couldn’t help but notice. Then he looked back at Steve, smiled, and quietly said, “Yes, Daddy. Let’s go home now.”
About two hours later, Steve was outside the emergency room entrance at the hospital, smoking a cigarette and pacing nervously. A city police officer was watching him, clearly under orders to do so. He could see the officer’s name tag: McGee. It reminded him of the book series he’d read over the years, of a private detective by the same name. Odd that I should make that kind of connection, he thought.
He talked a bit with the officer, explaining how he felt about the situation, that something was happening that shouldn’t be. McGee seemed to be kind and sympathetic, but Steve could be misreading it. Still, it helped to talk, because talking helped to sort things out in his mind.
About the time he finished his smoke, Davidson came out with Steve’s son. He hadn’t even known the man was here.
Martin started to go to his father, but Davidson held his hand tight enough to prevent it. Steve looked at the big man, then spoke as he took a step toward him, once again sizing up the best way to fight if necessary. “If we’re done here, I’m taking my son home to get him some dinner. Now get your hand off of him.” The man’s size was intimidating, but Steve wasn’t about to give in to such concerns. He was a former Marine, and couldn’t let the fact that his opponent was twice his size and weight stop him from doing what he had to do.
“I’d stop right there if I were you, Mr. Winthrop,” Davidson said, pointing with his free hand toward the police officer. “Unless you want to be arrested here and now, in front of your son.”
Steve looked back at McGee, who shrugged so slightly that he almost didn’t notice. He looked back at Davidson. “Why are you doing this?”
“The grounds are excessive corporal punishment, Mr. Winthrop. Martin will be placed in emergency foster care this evening. You will appear in the Family Court in two weeks. Here is your summons.” Davidson handed him a paper. “Sign here to prove you received this, and I’ll be on my way.”
Steve scanned the paper, saw that phrase, excessive corporal punishment,
and the doctors’ signature below a statement that he found bruising on the boy’s upper leg and lower back. He noted the doctors’ name: Elias Wilson. He looked back at the social worker. “What right do you have to take my son? This is bullshit and you know it!”
Davidson smiled tightly. “Doctor Elias says differently, Mr. Winthrop. Now sign the paper. You’ll have your chance to say your peace in court.”
Steve looked at the pen the big man held out to him. Stared at it as if it was a poisonous snake. “And if I refuse to sign this lie?”
“Nothing will change except that I’ll have to write in my report that you’re uncooperative. That will be held against you in court.”
“This paper says that I admit to what you’re accusing me of. There’s no way I’m signing it, because it’s a damned lie.” Steve ripped the paper in half and handed it back to Davidson. Then he turned to Officer McGee. “You’re a witness to this, Officer, right? My statement is simple. I refuse to sign something that is not true. And even if it was true, I would have the right to not sign, under the Fifth Amendment. Correct?”
McGee only nodded his head. Davidson looked at both men, then picked the child up and carried him off. Hearing his son screaming for him and seeing him trying to get out of Davidsons’ arms, Steve balled up his fists, ready to go after his son and that fat joker taking him away; but one glance at McGee with his hand on his holster convinced him to stay put. When Davidson was out of earshot, the officer said quietly, “Be glad you didn’t cause a scene, Mr. Winthrop. I’m a father myself, and I don’t like what just happened here. But you’re being watched from several places, and I would have had no choice but to arrest you.”
Steve looked at McGee once more, noticing as he hadn’t before that the man was quite a bit younger, maybe in his early twenties. Must be new on the force.
“Thanks for letting me know,” Steve replied just as quietly. “If I can have you called to court, will you testify?”
“You have the right to call me, but I can only testify to what I’ve actually witnessed. Since I’ve never encountered you before, even though I feel you’re being screwed here, I can’t testify to that because it wouldn’t have any weight in court. Sorry.”
Steve looked down at the ground, then back up at McGee. “I understand. I might call you anyway. I won’t know until I speak with a lawyer.” He turned to walk away, back to his apartment at Tubman Terrace. But before he’d taken two steps, he heard the officer wish him good luck. He acknowledged this by raising his hand as he kept walking.
As he walked up the sidewalk to his apartment, his neighbor, Cora Llewellyn, who babysat for him occasionally and whom he thought of as a friend, rushed out of her door, straight at him. “You son of a bitch!” she yelled, “How dare you hurt that little boy?”
“What are you talking about, Cora? They just took Martin away from me, and I don’t know why!” he cried, her words still not registering.
“You beat that boy black and blue! I’ll kill you, motherfucker!”
“What? Who told you that shit, Cora? I never did any such thing! Why are you acting like this? You know me better than that!”
“A God-damn CPS worker came here asking me about you and Martin! He told me your son had bruises all up and down his back from you beating him!”
Steve was shocked. “That’s bullshit! He’s lying! I never did any such thing!” He turned and ran into his apartment, not wanting to fight with a woman; he saw women in much of an old-fashioned way, to be protected.
He took a quick shower and changed clothes, tried to eat something and failed due to his anxiety and confusion at the turn of events. He then left the Tubman Terrace housing project, walking to the basement apartment on Academy Street where his friend Paul Jackson lived. Paul was a priest he and Maria had known for several years, who had counseled them on their difficulties with each other. He had been a witness at their wedding in front of the judge rather than perform the ceremony because they hadn’t wanted a religious wedding.
Sitting at Paul’s dining table, he told the priest what had happened, and asked for his advice.
Paul questioned him on details of the situation, but accepted his friends’ story as the truth as far as was known. He was troubled by the idea that the state could do something like this. He smelled the metaphorical rat in the woodpile. His background as an international courier employed by the United Nations, before he had taken up his ecclesiastical studies, let him see that all was not as it appeared. He told Steve that he would look into the situation from his end. “But don’t ask any questions that I can’t answer.”
Steve, having some idea of Paul’s past, agreed that some things were better left unsaid and some questions unasked.
Allen Hall had listened attentively to the tale. By the time Steve finished, it had become clear to Allen that this man was on the edge of a breakdown. He knew he could help, but wondered if he should. He had his own problems to deal with, not the least of which were his own children, both diagnosed ADHD among other things and in need of what was blithely called ‘special needs education’. The addition of the priest was problematic, given the problems being experienced by the Catholic Church lately. Pedophile priests; I heard rumors about them for years. About time this mess came out, he thought.
He watched Steve for a moment longer, then said, “Okay, I may be able to help you out. But before I get involved in this, I want to meet this priest.”
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Let me talk to him first. In the meantime, I have a tape you’ll want to hear. I just made it during my visit with my son, which they cut short. You’ll see why when you hear the tape.”
“As part of the reunification plan, Mr. Winthrop will have psychiatric and psychological evaluations done. He will attend parenting classes. And he will attend the Family Incest Program.”
Steve stood up, his chair falling backward and clattering on the tile floor of the courtroom. “What the hell?”
Judge Crandall pounded his gavel. “There will be none of that in this court, young man.” Steve sat back down, but continued to stare daggers at the Social Services lawyer. “Miss Rance, there have been no indications of anything that might require the F.I.P. Program. Where did that requirement come from?”
“We received a report from Doctor Romilda Yarrow, a pediatrician who did an examination of Martin Winthrop. Her report states that the child has been abused sexually. The indications are that Mr. Winthrop molested him.”
“Oh, fuck no!” Steve yelled. “That’s a God damned lie! My son would never say anything like that!”
Through this outburts, the judge was beating his gavel while Miles Cross, his attorney, was holding tightly onto Steves’ arm, trying to get him to stop talking. The judge called a ten minute recess and ordered Cross to instruct his client on courtroom behavior.
Ten minutes later, Steve sat stiffly, looking ready to breathe fire. The judge asked Miles if his client was going to refrain from further outbursts.
“Yes, your Honor.”
“Good. Now, do you have a response to Miss Rances’ filing?”
“I do, your Honor. We move that the filing be held in abeyance until we can examine the doctors’ report and consult with our own physician.”
“I’m inclined to accept your motion with regard to F.I.P. However, I want to advise Miss Rance against any further surprises like this. I want to know about new items before we get into court. Is that clear?”
Rance looked up briefly. “I object, your Honor. Doctor Yarrow is a specialist in these types of matters.”
“Objection noted and overruled. Now I’m going to accept Mr. Cross’ verbal motion in toto, and I want you to provide the Court, opposing counsel, and the counsel for the child a duly certified copy of that report and any supporting evidence. I want it done by this time tomorrow morning. Is that clear?”
“Yes, your Honor. Perfectly.”
“I object, Your Honor.”
“On what grounds, Miss Vance?”
“Filings require at least ten days by law. You can’t order me to deliver a report within one day.”
“Counselor, would you rather I file a report with the Bar Association telling them how you withheld evidence from opposing counsel?”
Vance looked down at the table in front of her, clenching her fists, seething. When she looked back up, her eyes didn’t meet the judge’s eyes as she said, “No, Your Honor. I withdraw my objection.”
Crandall banged his gavel. “So ordered. We’ll adjourn until two weeks from today. That’s the earliest time I have on my calendar.”
The bailiff intoned, “This Court is adjourned.”
“I don’t fucking believe this shit, Al! How the fuck can they do this?”
Allen shook his head. “Yarrow is on their payroll, dude. She has to be. She’s the only doctor they ever use in cases with this kind of claim.”
“But where does she come up with this shit, man? There’s no way my son has ever even … Oh shit, I can’t even say it!”
“Dude, I gotta ask. Is there anyone else who might have done something like that to Martin? Any babysitter or a sitters’ boyfriend? A neighbor? Anyone?”
“The only sitters were my neighbor across the hall, Mrs. Belamy; the woman in the next building, Melody Johnson; and the one who almost attacked me the day they took Martin from me. Cora Lewellyn. She has two teenage sons.”
Allen rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Could they have done anything?”
Steve looked up. “Damn. I don’t think so. They’re good kids, Al.”
“You never know. Just sayin, dude.” He thought for a minute, then added, “We’re gonna have to start a chapter of Vocal.”
“Vocal? Is that a musical group or something?”
“Vee Oh Cee Ay Ell. VOCAL. Stands for Victims Of Child Abuse Laws. It’s a national group fighting child pretective system abuses. There’s no chapter here, so we have to start one.”
“Well, mostly they advocate for change in the system, to stop the destruction of families without good reason. But we need to do something different, something they haven’t done before.”
“Once we’re certified as a chapter, we’re gonna file a lawsuit in the federal courts. They might not agree to that, but we won’t tell them until we’ve done it. Then we’ll see if they support us.”
“What if they don’t?
“We’ll still do it. And we’ll spread the word to other chapters across the country that the state VOCAL organization isn’t interested in doing whatever is needed to end this bullshit. I’ll get in touch with someone I know in Dayton, Ohio to get the ball rolling. I’ve talked with her on the phone several times a few years back, when I had a case in Orange County. She was a great help to me then. You start researching the forms for filing that suit.”
“Al, we have a problem.”
Allen looked up from his lunch. “Another one?”
“Yeah. Garfield told me after my visit that you’re suspected of molesting my son, and that I accepted money from you for letting you do it.”
“What? What the fuck? What did you tell her?”
“I reminded her that she heard you ask Martin if he ever saw you before, and that his answer was no. She also said that Martin had identified ‘Father Paul’ as a molester. The thing is, Martin never calls him ‘Father Paul’. It’s always ‘Uncle Paulie’. But I didn’t tell her that.”
“Good thinking, bro. They’re trying too hard to separate us. I’m gonna have a talk with Overton. Let him know I won’t stand for this crap.” Overton was Jack Overton, the CPS worker assigned to Al’s case.
Steve had a good idea what kind of “talk” his friend was considering. He looked away, knowing he couldn’t dissuade Al from that confrontation.
Allen was fuming. He was supposed to move next month, into a new place with his three boys. Barbara, the two older boys’ mother, with whom he had been living for several years, was not going with him. In truth, he didn’t care where she went as long as it was not with him. She had serious issues for which she should have been taking medication but wasn’t. One of those issues was a lack of cleanliness; another was her refusal to even try to properly take care of the kids. Things like taking them to the soup kitchen when there was a full spread on the stove and in the oven at the last two holidays was also a contributing factor; that made no sense at all, and when he told Steve about it, his friend was flabbergasted. No, Allen just couldn’t deal with her any more. So he’d found another place that would be ready by May.
The reason for his anger had just left. His landlord didn’t want him to move, and had come to talk him out of it. In the process, the asshole had shown off his .45 caliber pistol, which he’d then stuck in his pants waist like a common street thug. Then he’d walked behind the chair where one of Allen’s sons was watching TV, and put his hands on the boys’ shoulders. He’d squeezed lightly as he’d said, “I don’t want you to leave, Allen. We need to come to an understanding.”
Truth was, if Allen moved, then the landlord wouldn’t be able to rent to anyone else until he did some costly repairs to the house. But Allen didn’t care about that; he just wanted out, wanted to get away from the mess.
He was still mad when a knock came at the door three hours later. When he opened it, there were three police cars, a half-dozen officers and one tall, curly-haired white man in faded blue jeans and a cheap blue suit jacket. It was Jack Overton.
Overton looked over Allen’s shoulder at what he could see of the house’s interior. Then he looked directly at Allen and said, “We’ve had a report that your children are neglected and your house is filthy. I’ve come here to remove the children and place them in emergency foster care.”
Allen looked at the man, dumbfounded. “What? Who filed the report?”
“That’s confidential information. I can’t tell you.”
“That’s bullshit. I’m in the process of correcting the conditions you mentioned, so you can just turn your ass around and go back to your little cubbyhole office.”
“My information has it that you’re moving next month. That’s not acceptable. If you can’t move before then, I have to remove the children.”
“I can’t do that. I’m expecting Section 8 to approve my new home any time, but it won’t be ready until the first of next month.”
“Then I have no choice. Get the children ready to go.”
“Kiss my black ass.”
Overton smiled coldly. “Look out there, Mr. Hall. See those police officers with me? I am taking those children into protective custody. If you resist, I will have you arrested.”
Allen stiffened momentarily as if to attack Overton. Then he sighed, slumped his shoulders and got the boys ready to leave. When they were gone, he broke down and cried silently. Then he angrily brushed his face with the back of his hand and picked up the phone. He called Steve to tell him what had happened. Steve said he’d come right over, but Allen told him to stay home, that they might be watching to see if he showed up. “I’ll meet you tomorrow at Texas Lunch on the Main Mall. Right now I have to go for a walk and clear my head. Gotta figure out what we’re gonna do now.”
Three days later, Allen got a letter from Section 8. They informed him that the new apartment was approved, but there was a problem with his children being taken away. As he read it, he realized that they couldn’t have known that when they wrote the letter. So somebody had told them beforehand that this was going to happen.
He went to their office and explained that he had to have a place to take his boys to when he got them back. He told them how he had figured things out, and said that if they didn’t do their jobs and provide a place to live with the boys, he’d call the HUD office in Washington.
When he got back home, he saw that his furniture was on the siewalk. The landlord had hired a couple men to move it out. And the lock had been changed. A note was on the door telling him that Section 8 had refused to pay their portion of that months’ rent.
Another bit of evidence, he thought. They’re trying to break me. But why? It can’t be because they want my kids. It has to be because they want me to stop helping Steve. But again, why? I have to find out.
He went to a friend’s house, a woman he was helping with another CPS case. She agreed to let him stay there until he sorted his housing problem out. She also agreed to let him call HUD on her phone. And she practically dragged him into her bedroom.
Within a week, he was back on the Section 8 roster and approved for the new apartment.
The old house just off Maple and Pershing Streets, parallel to the Salvation Army office, was divided into upstairs and downstairs apartments. Allen and Steve were sitting at the table in Allens’ upstairs apartment eating a simple dinner of macaroni and cheese.
“I’m glad you and Paul stopped me from going back in there the other day. But I’m also pissed that you did.”
Steve looked across the table. “You know Barbara and Sparkie helped out, Al.”
Allen sighed loudly. “Yeah, I know. They’re some strong women. Physically, I mean. But still, what they accused me of...”
“Yeah, tell me about it. It’s totally fucked up. There’s no way you could have done that. But you know what would have happened if you’d gone back in there. You’d be sitting in a cell right now, if they didn’t shoot you. And you and I both know the only real reason they took Corey, Adam and Jason is because you’re helping me get Martin back.” Steve sighed loudly. “It’s my fault, man! If you hadn’t been helping me, they would have left you alone, man!”
Allen looked like he was fighting back tears as he slammed his fist on the table, shaking the plates of food. “Yeah, you’re right, dude. But you’re wrong too. It’s not your fault; the system is broken; it needs to be fixed. It’s all about power. They have it, and they exercise it against people they think can’t fight back.”
Allen looked at his friend for a moment. “You’re almost there, bro. It’s power and the exercise of power, yes. But there’s almost always a purpose behind the use of power. It’s almost never for its own sake, contrary to popular belief. What’s the purpose?”
“Power is used for control, Al. They want to control us for some reason. You because you’re helping me. That’s why they took your kids, thinking they could control you by holding them over your head. But why me? I don’t get that at all, bro.”
“How many kids are in foster care? All those kids, the agency gets paid by the federal government, just for having them in foster care. And if they’re special needs kids like mine, they get even more money from the feds. Do the math and figure it out.”
“There must be a hundred thousand kids in foster care, Al! That’s a lot of money we’re talking about! What are they doing with it?”
“Maintaining their power and going for more. But that’s not even all of the game, Steve. How many of those kids could be kept in their homes if basic services those families need were provided? I’d bet most of them. Things like home care aides, help paying bills to avoid utility cutoffs or evictions, things like that. Think about that. It’s a systemic problem. The system is broken, and the people in the system resist fixing it.”
“But why? If they care so much about children, why wouldn’t they want to fix the system? It makes no sense to me!”
“Think about this then. If all the children who could be returned home with appropriate serves, were returned, what would happen to the people employed by the system? Include group homes, foster parents, doctors and other providers.”
“There wouldn’t be a need for bigger and bigger budgets. And some people would lose a source of income, or have that source reduced. But damn, are they really that greedy?”
“Yes, they are. Not necessarily individuals, though there are more than a few corrupted by the power being a CPS worker provides. But the system itself is a hungry beast. And there’s every chance that many people would lose their jobs because therewould be no need for so many caseworkers. More unemployment. It’s part of the cycle.”
“Damn, that’s a tough nut to crack. How can it be changed? And what chance do regular people like us have to change it?”
“I don’t know, man. It might have to be destroyed completely before that can happen.”
He took a deep breath, then another. Then he yelled, “But to tell me I molested my children? And for that bitch caseworker Julie Henderson to tell me there ain’t no black man does that shit, like she believes I did that? Fuck no! I could have slapped that bitch right there, man! Give me a fuckin’ break!”
“Just like they accused me of prostituting Martin. Where the hell do they get this shit, anyway, Al?”
Allen sighed loudly. “I don’t know, dude. They must pull it out their asses.”
Early in the month, they got a letter informing them that they were accepted as a the Mid-Hudson chapter of VOCAL. They immediately got to work, each from their own homes, contacting people they knew who were involved with CPS. Of all the people they knew, only a handful agreed to join. Most were afraid there would unwanted repercussions in their cases. This frustrated Steve, but Allen said that he’d expected that. “That’s the level of fear these bastards instill in their victims, bro. That’s what we’re up against.”
But in spite of the difficulty getting people to join their chapter, the timing was just about perfect; a phone call came in 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 weeks’ 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. Two, as a matter of fact. First, Steve got a letter hand-delivered informing him that he had to move because he didn’t have a child living with him and he wasn’t disabled. The gist of it was that Section 8 wouldn’t continue subsidizing his staying in the Tubman Terrace project. He called Allen to break the news.
Unfortunately, Allen had his own problem. He’d been told that CPS was going to accuse him of molesting 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. In the meantime, he told Steve to get what he could carry and come over. He had an empty bedroom upstairs that Steve could use.