It was close to midnight on Saturday when children's services worker Litsa Dupont arrived at MacLaren Children's Center. The blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms, a baby boy, was severely malnourished, his belly bloated, his arms and legs pitifully underdeveloped, his skin wizened like that of an old man.
Earlier, Dupont had removed the baby and his three siblings from an abandoned house that had neither heat nor lights, where the plumbing was clogged and the shattered windows did little to keep out the cold.
The tip-off had come in an anonymous call to the Emergency Response Command Post, an all-night operation of the county's Department of Children's Services, and Dupont had been dispatched from Emergency Response's outpost in the Wilshire Area police headquarters.
She was not a welcome visitor at the house. Her persistent knock was answered finally by a woman who claimed to be "just visiting," and insisted this was all a mistake--that there were no children in the house. "I saw the baby in her arms," Dupont said. "She was trying to hide him."
Dupont had quickly sized up the situation. There was an adult male in the house (she had heard his raised voice) and the mother was uncooperative and hostile. Suggesting that she had made a mistake, she drove off--and directly to the 77th Street police station.
A short time later, police forced entry into the house where Dupont found the mother, her male companion and four shivering children hiding in the basement. The baby's nose was badly congested, his face smeared with mucous. His toddler sister's filthy clothes were soaked with rain.
Minor children's safety and well-being were clearly threatened. The police, and Dupont, acted quickly. At 77th Street station, Dupont bathed the little girl in a sink in the women's locker room and dressed her in dry clothes provided by the police.
Within a few hours the older children had been placed in temporary foster homes, the two boys together, and the baby had been examined at Daniel Freeman Hospital before being delivered to MacLaren.
A nutritious meal would be a priority for all four. One of the boys told Dupont that their daily diet consisted of "a sandwich and potato chips" in the morning. The doctor at Daniel Freeman had concluded that the baby, an 11-month-old "preemie," had been subsisting on milk alone and was marasmic, suffering calorie-protein deficiency that would probably cause some mental retardation.
Only six days earlier, the 29-year-old mother had received her AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) check but, when quizzed about the money, had insisted to Dupont that she had spent it on motel rooms, that she had brought the children to this abandoned house only after the money ran out.
Her story was inconsistent with that of the children, who said they had lived "for a long time" in the house, that they occasionally were taken to a motel but "we always go back to the cold house." And the woman's driver's license, issued in 1982, gave the address of this house.
It was Dupont's judgment that here was a mother who's "got to take care of her own problems before she can take care of her children's problems." Within 72 hours, there would be a detention hearing in Juvenile Court at which time a judge would decide whether the children were to be detained pending further investigation.
Now, Dupont sat down to write her report. It was 12:15 a.m.
The Emergency Response Command Post, a 24-hour operation out of MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte, was established a year ago to provide around-the-clock response seven days a week.
There are 47 night shift children's services workers, seven superintendents and 12 clerical support staff, working four 10-hour shifts weekly, with two of the above workers on duty between 4 p.m. and 2 a.m. at each of seven outposts in police headquarters scattered throughout the county. After 2 a.m., a crew of five plus a supervisor works out of the command post.
"They're real cowboys," said Carlos Sosa, director of the Bureau of Protective Services, "independent, assertive. When you work at night it's scary. That's when people get drunk. That's when people get violent."
Workers are encouraged to ask for police protection when they go out on call--especially in high-risk areas, or when a potentially volatile situation is suspected. Sometimes tact is all that is needed. Social worker William Johnson said he always reminds himself how he'd feel "if someone was knocking on my door and it was about my child."
In a given month, the command post fields 1,163 calls alleging child abuse or neglect and responds to 687, referring to the day shift others that seem legitimate but do not require immediate intervention. (During daytime hours, the operation is spread over 15 semi-autonomous regional offices.)
About 80% of the calls prove to be legitimate. The criterion, always, is whether a child is in imminent danger.