We were at the end of the line, the final week of the field period where everyone had to take a hard run at their remaining cases, working every angle, every lead to get in touch with the respondents whose trails had gone cold. Sometimes you were still running down leads, feeling like you were one call away from getting the respondent on the phone, or that you finally had the address where you might find them at home during a drive-by. But there were always a token two or three with whom you’d had zero contact, dead ends every which way, no response, no known associates, no clue. Jane Doe (name has obviously been changed, along with identifying details) had become my white whale of the project. By the end I found myself obsessing about finding her, in a way I didn’t with the other missing respondents. Who was she? What did she look like? What was her story? I knew from her file that she was in her early thirties and that her kid(s) had been removed from her home. But as to her whereabouts? That was anyone’s guess, and my responsibility.
It was tempting to break down and ask my fiance, a lawyer who represented DSHS social workers (whose clients were parents with active CPS cases, our study respondents) in the region I was assigned. Surely he and his colleagues knew each respondent in my files between them. It wasn’t a huge city. It would have made things a zillion times easier to work with the attorneys, but alas…confidentiality is binding on both sides. There was absolutely no ethical way to get information about our missing respondents from his office. It was maddening to think that an elusive respondent might have appeared in court any given day, providing a new address. It made you want to camp outside the juvenile court, but of course we lacked a physical description of our respondents. I had created this situation for myself, asking to be assigned to a region where I knew, and partied on weekends with, a myriad of CPS social workers and attorneys, the very people directly engaged in the cases we were studying.
Jane’s number was disconnected with no forwarding number from my first attempt to call her. Disconnected, not “will be turned back on when the bill’s paid, so keep trying”. I waited until I had some other interviews scheduled before I started the first of my drive-by attempts, rolling up to addresses we had on file, knocking on doors, asking questions. According to our files, Jane lived in a quaint 1940’s brick building just west of downtown, on a quiet street off the main drag. Apartments were tough because you couldn’t do shady shit like peek in the windows for signs of life. You couldn’t listen at the door for movement. I stepped up the short flight of concrete stairs, pressing the yellowed button that corresponded with her apartment number. Nothing. I waited, standing in the afternoon sun on a deserted street. I pressed again. Waited. Nothing. I watched the vestibule inside the wavy glass panes of the heavy common front door. I strained to see the top of the forest green carpeted stairs, scanning for movement. Absolute stillness. I shrugged to myself and got back in the car.
I found another one of my elusive respondents in the state’s online jail records, an invaluable, public resource on which we relied in difficult locating cases. Ethics rules forbade us to interview imprisoned respondents, and because it was early in the field period, I was responsible for determining if she would be available for an interview by the end of the study. Digging around online I found her court records, which listed the name of her attorney…an acquaintance of mine. What were the rules if we came by the attorney’s name honestly, linking them to the respondent via public record? Could we talk to them then, say we’re trying to reach them (without stating the specific purpose) and ask when the respondent would be out? We could. I breathed a sigh of relief and picked up the phone to call Barb, an attorney who represented parents in their CPS cases against DSHS. Did Barb think her client would be out by say, October? Certainly not, Barb informed me. Her client had killed her own child, a horrific case where a mentally ill woman had suffocated her infant before anyone knew something was wrong inside the home, inside the woman. I could close that file. Criminal charges were pending, and it would be a while yet before that case got going. Bail was unlikely for what could become an inflammatory headline. It was a rare instance when I could retire a file, stop trying, subtract one from my missing cohort.
But seriously, where was Jane Doe? Every week she started on the bottom of my pile of files and stayed there, the scheduled interviews at the top, followed by the respondents with good contact information, the lukewarm leads, ending with the freezing cold. Jane Doe. There was just absolutely nothing to go on except an address that may or may not be good. I wasn’t going to drive by every time I was working the region. That would be invasive, especially if someone was home during each attempt, willing me to go away.
There were so few cases where there wasn’t some sort of scrap of a lead to work. I’d started with a bad phone number that had led me to an interview at a state-run inpatient psychiatric hospital. The number was for the respondent’s sister, who had no information to give, other than the respondent’s husband’s first name, when pressed. Whitepages.com had a phone number for his name, five different numbers in fact, and I patiently dialed each one, asking for her, apologizing for having the wrong number. One man informed me politely she wasn’t living there, and I knew I had the right person. I explained I needed to get a hold of her. He told me she had had a mental health episode that required hospitalization and gave me the name and number of her case manager. I called the case manager, explaining our study without talking about its purpose or subject, understanding she could not confirm her client’s whereabouts, asking instead she deliver my message and phone number. Miracle of all miracles she called back days later with a date and time I could meet the respondent for the interview. You had to try, because time and time again it was proven that any lead could be the one to break the case, to get the interview in the bag. It was about making the numbers, people.
I decided to switch it up and went to Jane’s house first thing one morning, arriving on the steps at 8 a.m., the brightly-lit June morning chilly enough to show breath. I shivered in the morning sun, pressing the button, peering into the dark vestibule. Suddenly a figured appeared at the top of the stairs, slowly, warily making his way down, assessing me through the glass. He appeared haggard from a life hard-lived, opening the door and squinting in the sun. I asked for Jane, whether she was home. Another man came down to join him at that moment, also looking hard-used, both with the appearance of having been up all night doing drugs.
They stared out at me, discombobulated, disoriented and surprised. I wondered if they might not close the door in my face, or react with paranoia. Instead, the first man’s brow creased with worry. He explained that while Jane had been staying there, she hadn’t been around in a while. The second man offered that if they saw Jane they could ask her to call me. Did I want to leave a note? They kindly waited in the cramped space between the vestibule and front stoop as I scrawled a note on an extra copy of the letter we sent notifying the respondent they had been selected for the study. We’re so sorry she’s not here, they said. We wish we knew where she was. Their concern was evident, as was their desire to help me connect with Jane. I thanked them and left the sealed letter with them, hoping I might hear something.
To be continued Thursday…