By mid-field period I had called her about a dozen times, sometimes getting the pre-recorded message that “the subscriber you have dialed is not available” (a euphemism for “the subscriber hasn’t paid their bill”), sometimes getting a voicemail with that pleasant robotic woman reading out the ten-digit number, the pinnacle of cellular anonymity. There was no way of knowing whether or not the number was still good, and the respondent had long since left the address we were provided by DSHS. (We were to find out at the bitter end of the field period that someone at DSHS had screwed up royally, providing our Director with respondent contact information three months old, and in some cases older. With a transient population, as parents with active CPS cases tend to be, contact information changes often. Three months may as well have been three years. We had been behind the eightball the entire study, and while we’d sensed it, running down lead after lead, coming up empty handed, we’d accepted it as part of studying this population, never assuming DSHS wouldn’t possess updated, verified contact information for its own clients. In retrospect, of course we should have assumed the worst of this big, clunky, broken government machine. You’ve seen the headlines. Shit is always fucked up with CPS.)
One late morning she answered, and I silently pumped my fist in celebration. Yes! Contact! I jumped right into my spiel about did she receive our letter, and would she want to give an interview about her experience with CPS for fifty dollars cash, time and place of her choosing? She was wary from the outset, finally offering to meet me at the downtown public library the next day. I showed up. Waited, watching the door for someone looking for someone. No one meeting that description ever showed. Sigh. Back to the phone to try again. Back to the car to drive around checking out addresses, seeing if I could pick up an interview before driving the forty miles back up I5.
The next time I got her on the phone, she was breathless, clearly talking to me outside from the background noise. I made nice about her “missing” our appointment, trying to couch it as my fault, asking when we might try again. There was a long pause, during which I could hear traffic swishing by. “Listen,” I said, going into sales mode, “it’s really whatever works for you. I want to make sure that you feel comfortable and that we’re doing the interview in a way that’s most convenient for you. What questions can I answer for you?” She began to speak in a rush about her hesitation about meeting me. “I just can’t know for sure if you’re who you say you are. Is this a trap? Am I going to show up and there’s the cops and my caseworker? I don’t need that right now. I’m not going to put myself out there unless it’s for sure. I’m doing what I have to do right now, and I have to protect myself. I can’t just agree to meet someone I don’t know, that I don’t know what for. How do I know what you want, and what this is for? Why would I believe anything anyone had to say, who I don’t know. You know?” Her last few statements were delivered in a pleading tone, the whole gush laced with paranoia.
While we commonly dealt with suspicion from respondents, once I got through my pitch, explaining who I was, what the study was and the incentive for participation, all in under thirty seconds, they were listening. By the end of the call they were almost always on the hook, opening the door to me at the scheduled time, sitting down and responding to my questions, opening themselves to a total stranger. Sometimes that surprised me–the ease with which respondents were willing to touch on private aspects of their lives with a twenty-something kid in jeans and a hoodie. Would I talk so freely to a researcher? I didn’t know. Maybe not. In this case, I was going to have to work all my angles to get this interview bagged. No, to get this interview scheduled.
I explained the study to her again, and my role as a data collector. I reaffirmed that while we were the university, we were not affiliated with CPS or DSHS, the cops or court system. We were doing a study so the social workers could find out if their new practice model was effective, and who better to give the assessment than clients? I reminded her that she would not be required to participate in the study even if we met with the intention of an interview, and that in fact, she could skip any question I asked for any reason, could stop the interview at any time. I essentially read her the consent form, hoping to allay her fears. “I’m still not sure”, she said hollowly. “Let’s do this,” I offered, “I’m going to wear a bright blue tee shirt tomorrow with jeans. I have dark brown hair, and I’ll sit at a table up front with my laptop out. You can come check me out, and if I don’t look safe you can leave without risking anything. I have no idea who you are.” The only descriptive information I had was that she was in her mid-forties. She considered for a long moment, then agreed. I went through the library routine again, was stood up again, not one woman over thirty coming in the door as I sat and watched. Sigh.
Required to try for an interview until the end of the field period, I called her as I left the library. You might be wondering whether we couldn’t just leave a respondent be if they expressed reluctance. Study guidelines proclaimed we should never take no for an answer the first or second, third time. And if the word no was never clearly uttered, you had to continue contact until the interview was obtained or the third (or fourth or fifth) hard no came. We were to record each contact attempt in the respondent’s file, ,making notes on each try–number disconnected, no one came to door, unidentified man said she wasn’t home. No piece of contact information was irrelevant. Were we to fake the attempts in the contact log we ran the risk of our QC department discovering the falsification, and heads would roll. Not only would we be shitcanned, we would have biased, if not rendered spurious, an entire university research project, in a department whose mission was to increase health and wellness in vulnerable communities. QC spent weeks randomly calling respondents to ask about their experience, whether they were read the consent form, agreed to participate and gave the interview, or were contacted at all. You can imagine how tempting it would be to fake calls, drive-bys and interviews even, just to get done. But we didn’t do it, because we needed our paychecks. And we wanted the health of these communities to improve, if we sat down and thought about it, about how our role fit into the Big Picture.
“Hi, so I’m checking in to see if you were at the library,” I asked in a neutral tone. Her voice shook as she answered, “No. I’m sorry. I just didn’t make it.” A pause followed, and I waited for her to say more, unleash a verbal torrent as she had the previous day. Nothing came so I ventured, “is there any time or place I could meet you this week? Like I said, it’s whatever works for you.” “I have to go,” she told me, adding, “but I’m staying at the extended stay hotel off I5. If you can come tomorrow around three I’ll be there.” She gave me her room number and hung up.
The next afternoon at three p.m. sharp I was standing outside a room door on the backside of the complex, black plastic file box in one hand, cell phone in the other, messenger bag containing an ancient HP laptop weighing approximately thirty pounds. The hotel’s lot was bounded by a high chain link fence that gave way to a sloping hillside culminating in a ravine shrouded with tall, dense grasses. In another era Gary Ridgway would have dumped a dead teenage runaway there, I thought idly, shivering.
She opened on my second knock, a tall woman looking every bit her age, tired, wasted. Forlorn, even. During the initial face-to-face contact at the door, I made it my practice to wait outside until explicitly invited in, never assuming, reading the respondent’s physical cues. I believed in showing a deferential respect to adult respondents, aloof detachment to our teens. Anything to decrease the tension of the moment and bag the interview.
“Hi,” I said, introducing myself. “How do you feel about me coming in to do the interview? Because on the phone I know you weren’t totally comfortable with the idea. So, it’s up to you.” Wordlessly she swung the door open onto a double queen room, about which there was nothing “extended stay”. It looked like any other mid-quality, dime-a-dozen brand hotel room. Where was the kitchen? The living room? The desk? A suitcase was open on the floor near the window, empty. I could see clothes hung up behind the mirrored closet door, which was open about a foot. The room was neat, save a wadded-up towel on the bed closest the door, where she sat, seizing her laptop and looking intently at the screen. I sat in the room’s single chair, adjacent the bed, catching a glimpse of craigslist’s spare homepage, where she was browsing. I read her the consent form as she continued with her commerce, refusing eye contact, acting as though she were alone in the room.
A flash of insight: she was homeless, a heroin user, utilizing craigslist to engage in sex work to finance the room, her next opiates purchase. She didn’t want to give me the interview, but she was desperate for fifty dollars cash. Just as desperate as the mother of five whose fridge was bare. Although she would agree to our conversation after I read the consent form, saying she understood, she did not want this. Her financial and physical concerns were pressing her into the decision and how was this even ethical, waving a fifty in the face of the addicted, the destitute, here this is for you, but first tell me your most shameful stories so I can take them back to the university where they will be used by white men with PhDs to get more funding for their research. How exactly, was this not exploitative?
To be continued Thursday…