It wasn’t unusual for respondents to disappear into seeming thin air. You’d check the jail and prison records, search for social media accounts, call any number you could get your hands on, knock on the door at any related address. A different respondent had disconnected phone numbers and when I went to her address a toothless young woman sat in the window, looking out at the day. She spoke with me through her perch in the open front window, explaining that the respondent was her cousin, but that she had no way to reach her. An elderly woman moved around inside the living room, disengaged from our exchange. I sensed the cousin had information she wasn’t giving up, which meant I would have to come by the address a second time. Two weeks later I returned, finding the house abandoned. Peering through the front window I could see that every stick of furniture, every possession, had been removed, leaving the place bare. It was an odd sensation, and I wondered if perhaps the “cousin” had been the respondent. No way to find out now. The respondent’s file went to the back of the stack, right on top of Jane Doe. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Continued from Tuesday…
But what were the options in that moment? I couldn’t very well snatch the offer of fifty bucks away, I’m sorry, but I can tell you’re not into this even though you said yes, and in order to preserve your dignity I’m going to make your choices for you? Run out and hope she’d go permanently under the radar so QC could never reach her? I struck a deal with myself, do the interview but pay close attention for signs of discomfort and remind, in such a situation, of the respondent’s ability to skip questions or stop the interview at any time. It never felt like a convenient time to tell the respondent that if they answered fewer than sixty percent of the questions they didn’t get the cash. That wasn’t exactly in the consent form, but that was the expectation.
I dove in, starting at the beginning, questions I knew almost by heart at this point, what services have you been offered by DSHS? What services are you utilizing? And on into questions about ages and special needs of children in the home? What about the children not in the home? What disorders did they have?
She sat on the bed, fixing me with an intent stare that communicated in no uncertain terms, “I resent you for taking me through this.” Continue reading
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.) Continue reading
Continued from Tuesday…
Jay began to lecture me on white people and their uptight ways, a stream of consciousness flowing into rants about The System, legalization of marijuana, discreet drug use so as not to expose the kids, defense of her parenting and her philosophy of personhood in general. Her speech was pressured and confident, her total self-assurance evident. I sensed she was looking for some sort of validation, a reaction from me, despite her conviction. She wasn’t going to allow me to withhold my personality much longer. No neutral, passive research attitude would be tolerated. I caved as much as I could. “Jay, you are by far the most interesting person I’ve interviewed,” I told her, placing a light hand on her shoulder. We shared a smile. Continue reading
Jay had been sitting in the middle of my stack of files for several weeks, below the hot prospects who had agreed to interview appointments, above those that had proved to be dead-ends, all contact information bad. Her phone had been disconnected from the first time I called but her address hadn’t been explored. (We found out at the end of the study that the Department of Social and Health Services had fucked up, providing us with months-old information for a largely transient population, and oh my god was that the only information they had? How were they reaching their clients to provide services?)
Once I had several addresses prove to be the only means of contact for multiple respondents, I made a trip down I-5 for a series of drive-bys, an unscheduled, unannounced pop-in. The best-case scenario for a drive-by was gaining access to the respondent and completing the interview. Often times drive-bys led down a rabbit hole, as the respondent no longer lived there, or wasn’t crashing there anymore, or the place was vacant. This time I was headed to a suburb south of a city, not far from a joint Army and Air Force base. Lots of stripmalls, lots of hourly rate motels, the overall impression of low-rent squalor shaded by massive, densely growing Evergreen trees. Continue reading