Oh, The People You’ll Meet

oh peopleThe job was data collection for research studies related to mental health and drug addiction. My role was to go into various communities to survey research respondents, armed with a laptop and some sort of cash incentive. We were surveying high school kids about sexual behavior and drug use. We were surveying adults about various health-related behaviors. We were surveying parents about their child abuse cases. We were surveying elementary school kids about bullying. A field period of one project was always beginning, another ending, another smack in the middle, meaning sometimes we were on multiple projects at a time, cleaning up and finishing one, gearing up for another.

At the beginning of a project we were handed a stack of folders with the respondent’s contact information on the front, a contact log and notes field printed on the pages throughout. Many of our respondents were dealing with poverty and lived a transient lifestyle, phone numbers and addresses gone disconnected and cold almost upon our receipt. You started by dialing the numbers, hoping to make contact and schedule a time to meet them for an interview. Bad or old contact information meant hours on the phone or in the car “locating”, trying to track down any leads as to the respondent’s whereabouts. You filled up an entire file with notes and contact attempts and had to add more paper, so unreachable were some respondents. No stone would go unturned during this process, the PhDs upstairs unsatisfied until every single possible scrap of information was fully vetted and taken into account, every lead explored; never willing to lose someone from their precious study.

If the respondent did answer the phone, you were relieved, hoping to get them to commit to a time and place for the data-gathering to commence. Sometimes, however, depending on the person and the population, you’d have to bend over backwards to build trust to even get the interview. You’d leave messages weekly, block your number and call several times a day; you’d leave yet another message with a family member who was clearly screening calls. You’d get the robotic message about an unreachable subscriber (a discreet way of saying service would be back when the bill was paid) and try back a few days later. A bummer was the screeching error tone followed by that low, smoky, woman’s voice: “the number you have called has been disconnected.” That was the sound of square one.

Even more challenging were those who didn’t answer the call, any call, requiring a “drive-by”—showing up at their door to request their time. Nothing awkward about that. With some respondents, arriving unannounced at their residence was the only way to make contact. And often once you were there, they were surprisingly likely to allow the interview. And if they no longer lived at the address, maybe whoever opened the door could tell you where to find them. You’d ask if the respondent was a family member or friend, and where they might have gone. Got another address? Does she ever come by? Do you know her number? Can I leave a note? When was the last time you saw her? It was like playing detective, both frustrating when a dead end was hit, exhilarating when a new lead came about.

During one field period, we were tasked with interviewing parents with active Child Protective Services cases about their experience of receiving services from their assigned Department of Social and Health Services social worker. We were to ask a series of questions related to the social services they were offered and received during their case (the State’s child abuse statute favoring family reunification, thus attempts to bolster family stability through various programs), questions about their relationship with their social worker, and a mental health assessment. You would sit with a laptop, entering in each answer as the respondent held a laminated response card they could consult (1 for strongly agree, 2 for agree, and so on). Why bachelors-level professionals from all fields of study were administering mental health assessments, I couldn’t tell you. How it wasn’t considered coercion to offer this population, many of whom were single, unemployed, drug-addicted mothers living in poverty, fifty dollars cash to participate, I don’t know. The Institutional Review Board of the organization had approved every nuance, and we were turned loose on the community to get the data.

Another study had us going into schools across the country to administer surveys to high school sophomores and seniors, with the added twist of having to track down a select group of sophomores whom we’d been surveying for a different study each year since they were ten. Clear as mud? Imagine explaining that to a school secretary fiercely gatekeeping the principal, trying to make it all sound as easy-breezy and non-disruptive as possible in an age of “teaching to the test”, when every minute of school time was precious for securing next year’s funding. You’d head into work at 6 a.m. sometimes to catch the school admins on the East Coast first thing in their morning to coordinate the study, scheduling a week’s worth of surveys, playing schedule Tetris to reach the highest number of kids while causing the least disturbance to the curricula as possible.

You’d get the list of the select sophomores attending each school in the project and cringe at how many names had dropped off since last year’s field period—more locating work. You’d have to start calling outlying schools in tiny communities that hadn’t consented to the survey, looking for respondents and explaining yourself all over again, hoping you’d be allowed to survey there, too. You’d get clever and set up a MySpace profile, searching for the drop-outs and no-forwarding-address kids and trying to friend them, writing private messages in their vernacular, crossing your fingers they’d reply and you wouldn’t get busted for soliciting a minor. They were only getting paid ten bucks to fill out a booklet about whether they were having sex, using meth, drinking alcohol or skipping school. Often during the survey their interest waned and you struggled to get a completed assessment out of them. Sometimes you flew to places like Utah and drove all over Greater Salt Lake and farther out, to those tiny communities, to survey the select kids who had left the main high school. You asked other kids where the drop-outs hung out and found yourself climbing over a split-rail fence toward an abandoned barn, survey booklets in hand.

It was a wonder the people trying to live below the radar consented to our studies. No one ever asked for i.d., though many displayed distrust and reluctance. We weren’t allowed to take no for an answer the first, second or third time it was uttered. We were required to check back, come back, call back until we secured an interview, mining the data the PhDs couldn’t wait to get their mitts on. You tried to appear neutral and non-judgmental, dispassionate, bored even, to facilitate trust. You got in the door and began asking questions. Sometimes school administrators met you with intense recalcitrance, making a large-scale study to which they’d been consented by their Superintendent impossible to schedule. You got caught in the middle of school district politics and thought, this is way above my pay grade. Eventually almost everyone caved, and we presented high response rates to the PhDs upstairs.

Stories? Oh yeah, I’ve got stories.

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