Robert Holguin doesn't like what he sees at work every day, but he takes pride in the fact it's his job to protect children.
Holguin is one of 11 criminal investigators at the Jeanine Nicarico Children's Advocacy Center in Wheaton, which receives some 400 to 500 reports of child abuse each year in DuPage County.
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"It takes a special person, like the people that are here, to sustain a steady diet of this," the former beat cop said. "Unfortunately, you see the worst of the worst in people -- and it's sad."
As a senior investigator, Holguin is trained to conduct forensic interviews specifically tailored to be sensitive to victims' ages and understanding. He also collects evidence, interrogates suspects and helps link families to social services such as counseling.
Holguin has handled thousands of cases since he joined the advocacy center 21 years ago this month. Before that, he was a DuPage state's attorney investigator for seven years and a police officer in his native Laredo, Texas, where he worked in narcotics investigations.
The 53-year-old grandfather said he never intended to be a child abuse investigator. He started out by pitching in at the advocacy center because there was a need at the time for bilingual interviewers.
Some of the work was "difficult to swallow" at first. But when a full-time position opened up, Holguin didn't hesitate to apply.
"I was helping them out all the time anyway," he said with a laugh.
Since then, he's interviewed men who have impregnated their daughters, parents who have beaten infants to death, and children who were sexually abused -- sometimes on camera.
It's a tough gig, but Holguin has no regrets.
"You have to feel some sense of pride when you're able to keep a child from future abuse," he said. "I have all these pictures and letters from children. They write you. They thank you. I got one letter that said, 'Even though my mom and dad are mad at me for telling about what my dad was doing, at least now I know he's never going to do it again.' It was incredible to receive that from a child in middle school."
To deal with some of the job stress, Holguin works security for the Kane County Cougars during baseball season. He likes visiting the ballpark and seeing healthy families have fun.
Holguin, who has two adult children of his own, said he also tries to educate parents about how they can protect their children, both online and at home.
He's stopped trying to make sense of the abuse children endure because "it's not the norm and you're not supposed to understand it." He does hug his own family a little bit tighter.
"Children are the most precious thing we have," Holguin said. "They're our future and if we're not here to protect them, who is?"