The Setup

cps 1I had claimed the south west region as mine for the study, meaning I was responsible for interviewing all respondents within that Child Protective Services jurisdiction. A lucky thousand or so parents with active CPS cases had been randomly selected to participate in a quality control measure to determine if a new state social work practice methodology was proving effective. Almost all respondents were women, many single moms, some of whom had had their children removed during the course of their case, some living at in-patient drug rehab centers, almost all living in poverty. I wanted south west because my fiancé was working as an attorney in that jurisdiction—representing the very social workers our study would QC–in their child abuse cases. While we swore we wouldn’t trade names or other identifying details, I figured it would be fun to have lunch with him and all our friends who worked in his office a few times a week, and get a peek into their professional world. And the mileage checks would be great.

Were we research interviewers concerned about venturing into the homes of people who were in the middle of child abuse allegations and investigations? We were to meet people where they were, where they wanted, and a great deal of the time their home was most convenient. Who knew what chaos and disorder we’d be walking into? Our research managers assured us that in the twenty-odd years our division had been collecting data not one coordinator had been harmed in the field. Plus, they reasoned, the crisis leading to the CPS case would be over by the time we came into a family’s picture. Right. My fiancé was dubious at best, his job to read police and physician’s reports, view photos of injuries, hear accounts of unsafe and unsanitary conditions inside our respondents’ lives. Practicing common sense seemed like the best course of action for managing the unknown.

I sustained one injury, inflicted during the very first interview, when a respondent’s three year-old daughter threw a doll at my face. I’d been standing in their kitchen, explaining the consent form to the respondent, the child’s mother, when a hard piece of plastic (the doll’s head) popped me in the mouth, giving me a fat lip. The respondent and I looked from the child to each other awkwardly. No one said a word. It felt like an inauspicious start to the field period.

Often our respondents were unresponsive to our calls and voicemails, had disconnected numbers, because right now they didn’t have a phone, or they were waiting for one of their numbers to be turned back on, or their cell was broken, or the bill unpaid, service interrupted. Sometimes you got wary family members who took messages, or told you she didn’t stay there anymore. Every dial, every call’s outcome had to be documented in their file.

When phone contact proved impossible, the next step was to do a “drive-by” where you showed up at the given address, ready to interview. I had found, especially with this population, that the key to a successful unannounced visit was to project an air of confidence that was at once unassuming. You had to be nonchalant about showing up uninvited, and talk fast. You had to prove, though a clear explanation, that while you were a researcher from the state wishing to interview them about their child abuse case, you were not affiliated with Child Protective Services, also a state agency. You left out the part about how you were on the same payroll as the lawyers, judges and social workers who had taken their child/ren away, because what a mindfuck, if you really stopped to consider it. And you certainly didn’t even, for one second, think about how the woman at the door was likely on the caseload of your fiance or one of your other close friends—all child abuse litigators and social workers. Because, really, what a mindfuck. Quite honestly, our respondents’ dubious stares through half-open or cracked doors were warranted.

When you mentioned offering fifty dollars cash as compensation for their time, in most cases you finally had their attention. They became quiet or animated on the line, opened the door wide and invited you in, didn’t hesitate to schedule a date and time. Sometimes you felt exploitative, sensing if it weren’t for the desperately-needed cash this woman would never allow the interview. You wondered how the IRB had approved this relatively high cash incentive to a generally impoverished population.

A woman opened her door, exposing a sparsely furnished set of rooms, a card table, two metal folding chairs and a large mattress. She opened her fridge with you in her kitchen and there was a single contents–a gallon of milk–to serve with the large bag of Apple Jacks, the only visible food item. You counted four kids inside the house and understood she was swapping her interview for groceries for her children.

You sat on a mattress on the floor of an unfurnished, exquisite craftsman home, whose owner was allowing another respondent to stay while he remodeled. Her eyes glassy, affect haunted, hunted, you sensed she was beginning a withdrawal syndrome. You understood her child had been taken away and that she was an addict, the cash representing her next period of use.

You tracked a respondent to the region’s public psychiatric hospital and sat in an activities room with a woman so medicated she was entirely flat, a hollow doll. She answered your questions in monotone, leveled out, every response containing no response. You handed the fifty dollar bill to her case manager on the way out, money-handling by patients not allowed.

You thought about the respondents’ circumstances, both as observed by you and told by them, and wondered if their reluctant assessment of the handling of their CPS case would actually improve the quagmire of The System, or if you were just exposing people for cash. Well, it was your job.



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