(From left to right) Yvette Vega, A.J. Almazan, and Xiomara Holguin stand inside a hotel room where children were living with an individual who may be
(From left to right) Yvette Vega, A.J. Almazan, and Xiomara Holguin stand inside a hotel room where children were living with an individual who may be in violation of his parole in Wilmington on Aug. 29, 2012. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer)

It was midnight near the docks in Wilmington, and dozens of registered sex offenders rousted from their sleep stood against a wall, their hands tied behind their backs, as armed parole agents searched their rooms.

A helicopter gunship whirred loudly while swarms of police cars blocked potential escape routes.

Looking frightened amid the commotion were a young woman and her children - innocents caught up in the September parole sweep called Operation Safe Haven.

The older boy, 5, sat on his mother's lap, looking bewildered, not speaking, and Xiomara Flores-Holguin of the county Department of Children and Family Services tried to make him feel at ease.

"You're beautiful," she told him, in a friendly manner. "You look like your mom."

The younger boy, 4, slept through the entire operation in the arms of a parole agent. | PHOTOS

In years past, the family might have been left to fend for themselves.

Back then, law enforcement officers tended to focus solely on their criminal targets. Now, they ride out with specially trained social workers, who care for minors encountered in raids on illegal gangs, drug cartels, weapons dealers, human traffickers, child pornography rings, cults, terrorists and others.

"These are not your everyday social workers," said Emilio Mendoza, a supervisor of the DCFS' Multi-Agency Response Team.


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They are on call 24/7, undergo training in tactical operations, and can quickly spot signs of abuse, neglect and danger to children.

"To this day, there's nothing like this in the country," Mendoza said.

On this particular night, MART was part of a parole sweep of three city blocks listed as the addresses of about 60 registered sex offenders, who are barred by state law from living near schools and parks.

One of the men happened to have company during the raid. While parole agents questioned him, MART looked after his girlfriend and her sons.

This collaboration between law enforcement officers and social workers was forged in 2004.

"MART started out as a conversation with a sheriff's captain who handled child abuse cases and then was transferred over to gangs," said Flores-Holguin. "He asked them, `What do you do with the kids?' And there was no answer."

"The reason we're successful is we're able to maintain integrity of law enforcement investigations," Mendoza added. "We don't compromise their undercover agents or informants and, in return, we ask that child safety never be compromised in order to maintain a case."

To date, MART has accompanied law enforcement agencies such as local police and sheriff's departments, as well as the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service, Marshals Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on about 8,000 operations.

They have rescued about 10,400 children encountered in raids and then handed them over to DCFS caseworkers.

Mendoza remembers a mother in Lakewood using her children as human shields to prevent law enforcement officers from searching their home. The father, a suspect in a crime, was hiding in a bathroom.

MART social workers persuaded the mother to let them take the children away. As the evacuation got under way, however, the father started shooting.

Parole Agent Perry Tholmas puts a child back in his bed while Xiomara Holguin from DCFS watches in Wilmington on Aug. 29, 2012.
Parole Agent Perry Tholmas puts a child back in his bed while Xiomara Holguin from DCFS watches in Wilmington on Aug. 29, 2012. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer)

"The father opened fire on law enforcement, and they returned fire," Mendoza said. "This as our MART team is pulling the kids out the door."

MART social worker Yvette Vega recalled rescuing children from a father who participated in a drive-by shooting while they were in the backseat.

Then there was the father caught trying to escape through the backdoor of his house, leaving his toddler asleep in a room with black tar heroin and syringes all over the floor.

MART also took care of a 9-year-old boy who showed deputies where an adult had stashed three loaded guns in their home. One of the guns had been used in a murder.

They have found many instances of children being exposed to weapons and drugs. 

Often, it is hidden in their cribs, closets and even milk bottles.

For parole administrator Joseph Martinez, who helped lead Operation Safe Haven, MART can be indispensable.

"Usually when we have these large operations, we like to bring them along," he said. "MART is able to assess the situation and take the action they believe is necessary for the safety of children."

Even after decades on the job, Flores Holguin is still shocked that parents would use their babies' cribs to store drugs and weapons, and teach their toddlers to flash gang signs.

"I don't know if I've seen the worst," she said. "It's a very scary thought."

christina.villacorte@dailynews.com

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