“HERE’S ANOTHER ONE,” RANDY SHELL said, opening a manila folder. It was a Monday morning in July 1998, and four women in their early twenties were gathered around his desk in his spare North Austin office. “A mother is reported to be living in a cheap motel with her children, ages two and four. She’s using all her money and food stamps for crack. The kids are left alone all day in the motel room. They’re not being fed.”
Randy ran a hand through his long salt-and-pepper hair and stared at the women. Their faces were blank; the fluorescent strip lighting had drained the color from their cheeks. Already that morning they had divided eight manila folders among themselves, and another five were still sitting on Randy’s desk. “There’s just one problem,” he said matter of factly. “All we know is that Mom is in some motel along Interstate 35. She keeps moving from one place to another. No one knows what could be happening to those kids.”
The women seemed frozen in place, their eyes focused on the folder. Randy didn’t need to be told what they were thinking: Don’t give it to me. Don’t give it to me. This was a “door knocker,” a case that could require an entire day of knocking on doors of fleabag motels. None of them had time to play detective, though that is exactly what they had been hired to do. They were members of Unit 25, a child abuse investigative team for the state’s Child Protective Services (CPS) office in Travis County, and as they had been told over and over in their training sessions, they were the last line of defense for helpless children. It was their job to keep kids from getting their cheekbones crushed by beatings or their skin stripped away by scalding water. They were supposed to find the sick toddlers turning jaundiced from lack of medical treatment and the helpless grade-schoolers who stifled screams at night while an uncle or a stepfather fondled them.
For several seconds, the 38-year-old Randy, Unit 25’s supervisor, studied his caseworkers and wondered who was going to quit first. They were all rookies—they had been with him less than a year—and he had no doubt that they were all thinking about resigning. CPS has the highest employee turnover of any state agency: More than one out of every three caseworkers quit within twelve months. Randy was a rarity, an eight-year veteran who wanted to stay in the investigative division. He was something of a legend around CPS, so dedicated to his job that he occasionally spent the night on a bedroll on the floor of his office.
“Anyone interested in the motel case?” he asked. Standing at the far left of his desk was one of his best staffers, Christine Cheshire, a thoughtful 23-year-old who carried a Carson McCullers novel in her car to read during her breaks as a way to keep herself sane. On this day Randy had given her two case folders, and both needed immediate work. The first concerned a two-year-old girl and her ten-month-old sister, daughters of teenage parents who lived in a mobile home. The older girl reportedly had little round burns on her ankles, the kind made by lit cigarettes; she was also vomiting blood. The second folder told the story of a three-year-old boy who was seen standing alone in front of his house at two in the morning. The person who called CPS’s 800-number to file the report had said the boy’s mother regularly left him outside with a bag of potato chips while she went off to prostitute herself to buy drugs.
Christine might have been able to handle the two cases if there were not forty older folders already piled up on her desk. Unlike the ones Randy was passing out, most of those did not require instant attention, but she knew that if she disregarded them for too long, they were liable to blow up in her face. On her desk, for instance, was a report on an eleven-year-old boy who had told a teacher at school that he had seen his father hit his mother over the head with a lamp. His father had then picked up a piece of the lamp and pointed it at him. Because there was no evidence of abuse, Christine was supposed to close the case. But she couldn’t do it. In her conversation with the boy, she could sense how scared he was. He kept licking his lips and looking over his shoulder as she talked to him.
“Something’s going to happen to that one,” she had told another Unit 25 investigator, 24-year-old Reneé Munn, who also had more than forty open cases. Reneé was the staff sentimentalist: On the walls of her office were photos of kids she’d tried to help, including one of four beautiful young sisters who were sexually abused by a relative. She had come to work that morning hoping to find time to talk to five children from a middle-class Austin family who kept showing up at school with bruises and welts on their legs. But Randy had quickly handed her two more folders, one of which told the story of a 17-year-old who had just given birth to a girl. Nurses at an Austin hospital had called CPS to say the mother seemed mentally slow, didn’t know how to feed the baby, and was unwilling to change her diaper—and because she had no insurance and was not registered for a government aid program, the hospital had to discharge them. “Reneé, that mother needs some support services,” Randy had told her. He didn’t have to say what else was on his mind: Without supervision, the baby could easily die of neglect.
Randy thought about giving the motel case to his newest caseworker, 23-year-old Stephanie Fambro. He could tell she was a fighter. Whenever she heard him describe a gruesome case, she would narrow her eyes and angrily