When we finished chapter one last week, it would seem that social worker Donna Corliss’s investigation of an anonymous child abuse tip made against Gwen Landis had finally come to its conclusion. Donna used fraudulent means to get into Gwen’s house (which included lying to both the police and to Gwen), and then forcibly strip-searched young Casey as she screamed. But they found no bruises, and while Gwen admitted that she sometimes spanked Casey with a wooden spoon, spanking with implements is (and was) legal in Washington state. Donna left saying she would probably be closing the case. And Gwen, if you will remember, sent Donna and her compatriot, Rita, on their way with screams of “witches!” and “Nazis!”
Why, then, does this book not end with chapter one? Because of what happens at the beginning of chapter two, of course.
Donna Corliss marched angrily down the corridor of the CPS office. Nazi . . . witch . . . She rolled the words over again in her mind. I’m just trying to help kids and instead I get this kind of vilification. We’ll just see.
As a social worker employed by child protective services, Donna should be used to being vilified. It’s kind of part of the job description! And if Donna is her offices star social worker, as we have been told—indeed, if she is the one leading in-service training sessions—she should know this by now. Indeed, the things Gwen yelled after her as she left the home would likely not be the worst she’s heard.
Frankly, the fact that Donna is letting this rattle her makes me wonder how she got to be her office’s star social worker in the first place.
Donna immediately went to see her supervisor, whom Farris calls by his last name, Blackburn. (We are actually never given a first name.) If you remember, this is the man Donna talked to when she called in sick the Friday before (it is now the following Thursday). (“Calls in sick because she was out drinking the night before” and “waits nearly a week to investigate child abuse allegations even though she doesn’t appear to have a backlog of cases” are other reasons I’m skeptical of Donna’s position as star social worker.)
After she enters Blackburn’s office, Donna says this:
“I’m back to report on my latest efforts to protect the lives and health of innocent children.”
We are told that her voice is “dripping with sarcasm.” I get that sometimes sarcasm can be a helpful way to let out some tension, but this seems to be par for the course for Donna. Farris emphasizes time and time again that Donna sees herself as the savior of innocent children in a very self-aggrandizing kind of way, even as in action she doesn’t seem to care that much about the children she serves. For example, Donna made this investigation about her grudge against Gwen rather than about actually ascertaining whether Casey was safe. That’s not putting children first.
But then, that’s probably Farris’s point—he seems to be using this novel to make his case that social workers care more about getting back at parents who don’t bow to their authority than they do about the children involved. And while we could argue that he’s aiming at only social workers like Donna rather than all social workers, it’s pretty clear that he sees this as a systemic problem.
Anyway, Blackburn can tell something is wrong and asks what happened. Donna describes Gwen as “an uncooperative cheerleader-type who hits her kid with a stick.” Blackburn asks about bruises, and we get this bizarre exchange:
“Any bruises? You did examine the kid, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did, the little rat. She, like her mother, refused to cooperate with the physical examination. I had to old her while Rita took off her clothes. But no bruises. Nothing.”
This really should be the end for Donna. I get being frustrated when the kids you’re trying to help are uncooperative, but if you let that turn into anger against the child and begin talking about the child with derogative language as Donna does here, you are not fit to be a social worker.
Blackburn asks what Gwen did that made her so upset (a perfectly reasonable question at this point), and Donna tells him about Gwen calling her a Nazi and a witch and threatening to sue. Blackburn points out that he’s heard worse, and that threats to sue are common. Donna ignores Blackburn’s note about having heard worse. Instead, she tells him that she thinks Gwen actually might sue, because she is both emotional and furious and “very intelligent” with “perfect grammar.”
And here is where things take a turn. So far, this passage had read like Donna being angry and Blackburn trying to talk her down. Blackburn has asked questions and let Donna talk herself out, and the only substantive comment he has made have been to point out that name calling and threats are normal and commonplace in their line of work. But all of that is about to change.
Blackburn despised anyone who challenged the authority of CPS.
“Well, we could always implement Code B for this file.”
“That is exactly what I was going to ask you,” Donna said, leaning forward in her chair. “If we don’t, I’m going to have to unfound this report and close our investigation, giving this blond child-beating chick a clean bill of health.”
Before we talk about Code B, I want to note that Donna should find the report “unfounded” and close the investigation, and that any ordinary social worker would do just that. Spanking—with implements—is legal in Washington state. Furthermore, if social workers were to go after every family that spanked, they would be prosecuting more than half of all parents. Social workers do not prosecute families for simple spanking. Not only can they not do so legally, they also don’t have the time or resources to do so. If there are no bruises and the child’s behavior appears to be normal and there are no other concerns, that’s that.
At this point, Donna should be closing this case and turning her attention to the many cases she ought to have of kids in much more serious situations. But Donna doesn’t seem to have any other cases at this point. She seems to have all the time in the world to dwell on how mad she is at Gwen Landis. And this is odd, because social services is in fact very overworked and understaffed. Donna should move straight from her visit to the Landis home to investigating her next case, but she doesn’t.
So what is this Code B? Let’s keep reading. Before letting us know what Code B actually is, Blackburn reminds Donna that they have to use it infrequently lest it blow up in their faces. Donna agrees.
“I know, I know. But we’ve been careful. We use it only when we must and the judges here totally trust our credibility. When it’s our word agains the word of a child abuser, the judge is always going to side with us.”
If this were true, people would never be acquitted of child abuse charges.
So what is Plan B, exactly? We’re getting to that. Blackburn asks Donna what strategy she’s going to take, and she says she’s going to wait a few days and then file a report saying she found fading bruises that were seven to ten days old. That way if Gwen gets a lawyer (as Donna suspects she will) and the lawyer advises her to take the child to a pediatrician for examination, the bruises would be expected to have already faded. In other words, that way Gwen can’t disprove Donna’s claim that she and Rita found fading bruises.
Blackburn points out that Gwen could get a lawyer immediately and take the child to the pediatrician that same day, but Donna says she thinks that’s unlikely, because “if she was thinking strategically” she would have already gotten a lawyer after Donna’s visit the day before, and would have had a pediatrician’s report to hand Donna when she returned.
As a quick aside, this appears to be Farris pointing readers to the strategy he himself recommends—he advises his members to call HSLDA immediately if visited by social workers for any reason, and from reading some of his cases, he appears to recommend taking the children to a pediatrician for a clean bill of health rather than allowing a social worker access to them.
And then there is this excerpt from a book by HSLDA’s late Chris Klicka:
Know Your Family Doctor
We have had numerous situations where doctors turned homeschoolers in to social workers because they found a bruise or mark on the child . . . I learned early on that each family needs to know their doctor well. If the doctor is familiar with the patients and trusts them, they do not have to turn them over to a child welfare agency, even if they have a mark or bruise. It is completely the doctor’s discretion.
First of all, it is not up to the doctor’s discretion whether to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. They are mandatory reporters and are required by law to report such suspicions. Secondly, doctors know how to tell the difference between natural bruises and bruises inflicted by a child’s parent. This idea that a doctor will report any bruise or mark whatsoever is false. And given all the conflation, Klicka manages to make what is otherwise reasonable advice sound like a tip for hiding child abuse.
On some level, of course, independent verification is always a good thing. If you are being investigated for child abuse, I imagine it wouldn’t do any harm to have a doctor examine your child and testify that the child is in good health and does not appear to be abused. And if you’re worried that someone is calling in reports based on a vendetta, or that the investigators are biased or corrupt, having an independent assessment would likely be very helpful. But what makes me antsy is that, when combined with the above excerpt from Klicka’s book, this advice seems to be about more than protecting against false allegations or a biased or corrupt investigations. It begins to look like a plan to involve the family doctor in covering up actual abuse.
And frankly, I’m not sure how far Farris, Klicka, or others at HSLDA have thought this through. Their focus appears to be on protecting parents against false allegations. But, they seem to assume allegations are false, and they don’t appear to think of the role their advice might have in helping parents cover up actual abuse.
But we’re getting off track here!
Corliss has just told her supervisor, Blackburn, that she will wait a few days and then put in a false report claiming that she and Rita found old fading bruises when in fact they did not. By this time it will be too late for Gwen to get an independent report verifying
“You amaze me. You are almost as good as me.”
“I’ll get even better,” Corliss laughed. “Just give me time.”
And that’s how the section ends.
In other words, Code B means falsifying reports and making things up in order to charge parents with abuse they are not actually guilty of. And in spite of Blackburn’s desire to win top child advocate and to keep his office number one in the state, he’s on board with this. Ostensibly, he’s trying to avoid getting sued. But if they’re closing the case anyway, would Gwen really sue? And if she did sue, she would only have a case if the office had done something wrong.
Blackburn’s concern about being sued only makes sense if he believes his office made missteps in the Gwen Landis case. And of course, we readers know that they did—Donna used the police to force her way into Gwen’s home by either falsely claiming she had exigent circumstances or by falsely claiming exigent circumstances were not necessary. We do not know whether Blackburn approves of how Gwen carried out the investigation, because he never really asks her how she carried it out.
Does Blackburn assume that his investigators routinely break the law in their investigations? If so, that seems like a rather unwise way to run his office, especially if being top in the state matters that much to him. But then, that may be Farris’s suggestion—that it is most investigations and convictions that gets an office to the top position, and that Blackburn is willing to do anything he has to do to achieve that.
Of course, it could also be that being sued is a knock against being number one in the state, whether the suit has merit or not. But even then, I’m surprised Blackburn didn’t feel the need to even review with Donna whether her actions were all above board and in keeping with the law. In other words, Blackburn never even asked the questions he would need to ask to know whether Gwen would have a case should she sue.
Frankly, I’m not sure what is going on here. I mean, think about how many people are going to have to be in on this! Blackburn, Donna, and Rita will all have to lie. Can I say how unwise that is, not only for people who are ostensibly interested in protecting children but also for anyone who actually cares about their career?
Hopefully we will learn more about Blackburn’s, Donna’s, and Rita’s motivations in further pages of the book, because right now I feel like I’m missing a lot of pieces.