Searching for Rochelle

I was the caseworker assigned to hunt for a sexually abused 2-year-old in the wilds of New York. First of two parts.

Published June 27, 2001 7:32PM (EDT)

While large tracts of East New York are remarkably revived, there are also great swaths of wind-swept desolation. Far from Manhattan, out where Brooklyn fades into Queens north and west of Kennedy Airport, it was alien territory to me, if not to the thousands of folks, decent and otherwise, who live there. I found the area exhilarating and alarming, and sometimes felt a bit giddy cruising its sparsely trafficked streets. There were vacant lots with chest-high weeds, housing projects, industrial parks and spiffy new church- and government-subsidized developments. A couple of elevated subway lines bisected it all. And somewhere, someone was harboring Rochelle Frazier, a 2-year-old girl with venereal disease. (All names and some identifying details have been altered in this story.)

Rochelle was brought to Brookdale Hospital Medical Center, a large private hospital abutting the area, around 2 a.m. one Sunday in August by a woman described variously as a relative or family friend. She said Rochelle's crackhead mom, Vonetta Frazier, had left the girl with her several days before, and that the child had been oozing pus ever since. The "family friend" told Rochelle's mother that she was going to take the child in; I don't know whether the mom consented. Perhaps the middle of the night was the caretaker's only window of opportunity, or maybe her conscience pricked her just then because Rochelle's suffering became too acute.

A cursory exam revealed manifest sexual abuse. Brookdale didn't obtain any name or address for the good Samaritan who'd brought Rochelle in, though it did get the mother's particulars, including her address. More crucially, the hospital didn't keep Rochelle, didn't slap a hospital cop on her, despite symptoms of what they thought was gonorrhea. They did let slip that they would call the state office in Albany that generates all reports of child abuse and neglect statewide.

In effect, the hospital told the caretaker: "We're calling child welfare. So you just sit tight on those plastic chairs over there while child welfare creaks into gear and comes after you."

It's one thing to bring someone else's kid in for treatment, but quite another to lose her to "the system." Whoever the good Samaritan was, hearing of the call to Albany, she fled with Rochelle.

Albany faxed a report of the incident to Emergency Children's Services, an off-hours unit of New York City's Child Welfare Administration. ECS covers the city on nights, weekends and holidays. As an ECS caseworker for three years in the '90s, I worked a crazy split shift three evenings a week and during the day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

My overnight colleague declined to grab a car and embark on a pre-dawn raid of a crack den to search for Rochelle. But with a report this serious from an official source (the hospital), he had to pass the buck to someone, which at that hour meant the cops. My colleague's standard call seeking further information from Brookdale soon deteriorated into him bludgeoning the hospital to call the local NYPD precinct, the Seven-Five, to get it to track down Rochelle.

The police finally hit Frazier's apartment around 7 a.m. on Sunday. But rather than track down and secure Rochelle, they merely instructed Frazier to return her to Brookdale. I don't know if the child was home or still with the good Samaritan, or whether the cops even entered Frazier's apartment to search for her. Maybe Brookdale couched its request in such weak terms as to afford the cops some wiggle room. Or maybe the cops didn't want to risk languishing for a couple of hours in some emergency room.

I caught the case Sunday morning and called the precinct for an update. But NYPD's shift had changed along with ours, and the new desk sergeant knew nothing of any radio car run to Frazier's.

I did a couple of other Brooklyn field visits and then headed to East New York for my second trip there alone, just a month or two into my weekend fieldwork. (Caseworkers ventured out alone on weekend days and with a partner on weekday nights.) Some colleagues shied away from the Red Hook projects by the decaying docks overlooking the Statue of Liberty at the other end of Brooklyn. Others' bête noire was any of several neighborhoods in the South Bronx or maybe East New York's neighbor, Brownsville. But for a bunch of us, including me, East New York was downright scary. It led the city in murders year after year, crack was everywhere and City Hall's grasp there was mighty tenuous. The cops and child welfare caseworkers embodied that weak hold.

I drove along a broad, deserted street lined with lifeless one-story industrial buildings. It was blistering hot. I half-expected some Wild West tumbleweed to come barreling along as a cinematic grace note. A few prostitutes were in the streets trying to mask an addict's desperation with caricatured enticement. Their initial surprise at seeing a cruising, curious white guy turned into skanky invitation. Any second thoughts stemming from the city emblem on my car seemed to fade at the prospect of $15 from a clueless outsider.

I hit Frazier's block -- raw and desolate, bereft of warehouse, factory or whore. I gazed up at her three-story tenement, survivor of its neighbors' rubbled fate, and pondered the extent to which I'd put my butt on the line for some little girl. Would I do the mandated minimum: Go knock briefly on the presumed correct door and then slip a note under and turn tail should, hopefully, no one answer? It was better than a faked "no one home, no contact" from a worker who never got within miles of the case address.

(Given the stakes usually involved, fake "no contacts" were a caseworker's great sin. And though I knew they happened -- and, indeed, knew some caseworkers who perpetrated them -- they certainly weren't trumpeted around the office, and I can't estimate their prevalence. Sure, I fell off the straight and narrow, too, using the city car for shopping or visiting a friend during the mandated lunch hour. But a lot of caseworkers, myself included, drew the line at fake "no contacts.")

So I'd show up. But would I actually do my job?

Driving to find Rochelle, I'd decided against taking cops, since locating her might require some weaseling and wheedling, maybe some lying: "I just need to make sure she gets the medical attention she needs." If, on the other hand, the child was home but Frazier refused to go to the hospital, it'd be pretty tense, dangerous and probably futile trying to detain her while I waited for the cops.

That said, addicts typically have more to say around a caseworker than around a blue uniform, so going alone was my best shot. Weighing the best route to securing a raped little girl is what Emergency Children's Services is all about, provided the caseworker hasn't been scared into rote procedure or surrendered to ennui. So I opted for "Sally social worker" ingratiation -- and no cops.

Drinking in the block's lonely decrepitude, I started craving a little company. I'd already had a few rough moments alone in the field. (On my first solo visit, it was a tossup who shook worse -- I or the 130-pound broken-down drunk with the D.T.s I had confronted for regularly slapping her pubescent daughter.) Here, I clawed my way through a rare unease engendered by crack's riot and misrule (so rampant as to inflict V.D. on an infant), by being a rookie and by East New York itself.

Over the weeks and months, I eventually achieved a (sometimes sham) mastery of fear. Once my nagging and constant companion, the terror finally shrank until I could stuff it in a briefcase. I later ground fear down in my pocket with a fist so I could approach an apartment door unencumbered. Months later, recoiling from the whole uncomfortable issue or maybe just weary of it, I was at times oblivious -- the real danger -- and might not have paused on Frazier's sidewalk to take stock of the surroundings.

My contemplation of the listing shell before me was interrupted by a youngish grandmother and a boy of perhaps 12. As they walked out, she began screaming at him for complaining about his bruises to that "fucking transit cop." As the kid dodged away, she fumed, "And you think you got problems now. Just wait till after BCW comes. Got me involved with this BCW shit again."

(Seeking to shed its problems by shedding its name, the agency had metamorphosed over the previous few years from Bureau of Child Welfare to Special Services for Children to the Child Welfare Administration -- its name throughout my tenure -- to the Administration for Children's Services, presumably not its last incarnation. The various names were ignored on the street, as well as by most cops, doctors and the like. Certainly in my rough-and-ready days at the emergency unit, I was invariably a "BCW.")

The boy kept his distance from Grandma, not saying much. He was a lot older than Rochelle, and getting smacked around by an old lady paled before her abuse. Besides, maybe transit would call in a report.

I slouched past their stares and through the front door. My eyes adjusting slowly to the murk, I saw the stairway leaning one way, the building another. Feet lost in the darkness, hoping not to step on something squishy, I pondered the quotidian dilemma: Did the "R" on the report from Albany stand for the rear or the right-hand apartment? With the stairs on the left and only two apartments per floor, the two were adjacent. I peered at the report to no avail, called it the rear and banged with intent.

The door opened an inch. I leaned in close to catch a young woman's furtive replies as she peeped out. She said I wanted the right-hand apartment, but she was glad to see me, since Frazier was messing up big time. Fear shriveled her voice when I asked how. I asked her to let me in so we could talk. No dice. I goosed my plea, whispering that it'd take but a minute, and then I'd never see her again.

The woman stifled unease, then edged out her door, preventing a look inside. Her absurd suggestion was to go talk by my car, herself plainly visible chatting with some coplike white lug with a city car. Since I was leaving shortly, hopefully never to return, I decided it was her funeral. With more months under my belt, I would've scotched this nonsense for her own protection. We crept down the stairs to lean ridiculously exposed above the roof of my little car, but on the street side, to promote the fantasy no one saw us.

My new friend said Frazier was a heavy smoke hound, her home a crack house that operated 24/7. People indulged every which way for hours or days, steering Frazier a taste for the privilege. A lot of hysterics and hilarity seeped through the wall, she said, and there were plenty of women who were none too particular how they achieved an evanescent, ever-attenuated euphoria.

The neighbor didn't know Rochelle's whereabouts, but she'd heard people in the apartment that afternoon. At the end of our five-minute street display, she lifted her face to mine: "You gotta get that little girl out of there, mister. God only knows what's happening to her up there, all those people getting high."

She then dashed, her words shimmering in the haze. This collateral source's evident concern buttressed my resolve. But if she was fearful whispering in her doorway, why the charade of our exposed conversation on the street? True, it was at a slight remove, but I'd rapped loudly on her door calling Frazier's name, and we were clearly visible from Frazier's windows.

Then again, a crack den's neighbor is entitled to any inchoate expression of fear induced by tension and lack of sleep. Knowing what Frazier's neighbor confronted daily and how twisted living with crackheads can get you, I still wondered at her foolishness in coming out to the street.

Suddenly it dawned: She was Frazier -- or one of her smoke-hound buddies. And her misdirection would have me now go hammer on the wrong door, maybe to no response. Then she'd bolt with Rochelle, never to be seen again. Duped, I'd have blown the city's best chance at saving the girl.

Was this fear's pixilation? Did the damn "R" mean right or rear? I decided I needed a second opinion. Heading inside, I fished out my car keys and clutched them, business end protruding from my hand, along with my white flag of a clipboard. It was the first time I'd seized on my only weapon. (One colleague went armed with a knife in her purse before switching to scissors; she'd claim to be a seamstress if their use ever became an issue.) Plus, I didn't want to grope for keys if I had to flee to my car. Some workers left the car unlocked, but that felt somehow unseemly.

Part 2: "I hope you find her, 'cause some bad things are happening to that child."

By Daniel Forbes

Daniel Forbes is a New York freelancer who writes on social policy and the media.

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Sexual Abuse