Anonymous Tip: The Good Mother and the Bad Investigation

Anonymous Tip: The Good Mother and the Bad Investigation January 2, 2015

Today we meet Gwen Landis, the mother.

Gwen Landis was in her backyard pushing a giggling Casey on the swing.

“Higher, Mom. Push me higher,” Casey laughed.

This, then, is Gwen Landis: Good Mother.

The doorbell rings, and Gwen leaves Casey in the backyard, telling her to practice pumping her leg. At the door Gwen finds “an unknown, professionally dressed woman”—Donna. Donna introduces herself as “Donna Corliss from Child Protective Services” and asks if she can come in and speak with Gwen about Casey.

Farris tells us that “the lines were practiced and smoothly delivered with the voice of a friendly second grade teacher.” We are told that in this way Donna was able to gain “consensual entry” to “over 90%” of homes.” What’s going on here exactly? Well, social workers cannot legally force entry into a person’s home without either a warrant (issued by a judge) or exigent circumstances (immanent danger to the child). When social workers have neither of these, they will generally make a visit in hopes that the parents will grant them access to the child (or the child’s living situation) so that they can determine whether the allegations are “substantiated” (i.e. there is enough evidence of abuse or neglect present to proceed with a case) or “unsubstantiated” (i.e. there is no evidence to back up the allegations of abuse or neglect).

But Gwen does not open the door to Donna. Instead, she asks Donna what she wants to talk with her about. Donna responds that it would be less embarrassing to Gwen if they could talk about it inside in privacy rather than “out here in front of the neighbors.” Farris describes this as her “next-best line.” “Getting in the door with consent was the key to successful, quick investigations,” we hear Donna muse as she thinks back to leading the in-service training session earlier in the week. Donna’s goal, remember, is to convince Gwen to let her see Casey so that she can determine whether the allegations called into the child abuse hotline the previous week are “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated.”

Yet Farris tells us that “something in Gwen’s spirit” warned her not to just let Donna in. Rather than opening the door, Gwen asks Donna if she was being accused of abuse. Donna is evasive, saying that she cannot get into the details without compromising the investigation. This is another one of Farris’s big issues—he argues that parents have a right to know what they are accused of when a social worker comes to their home to investigate a report. Social workers argue that this can compromise an investigation by giving parents time to cover up evidence.

The interaction between Donna and Gwen really boils down to this exchange:

Donna: “I must come into your home and I must talk with Casey alone, this morning.”

Gwen: “No way. I am not going to let some total stranger come into my house to grill my child.”

Donna explains that “it is our policy to investigate all abuse complaints in person.” In my reading, we are meant to believe that this is actually the case—in other words, we aren’t meant to see this as Donna saying whatever she has to say—but if Farris knew more about how social services operates, he would know this is false. Social services does not investigate all abuse complaints. Instead, they screen out reports that do not meet certain standards. I am honestly not sure whether the allegations Gwen’s ex made would make the cut. Gordon called the child abuse hotline and reported that Gwen hit Casey with a ruler, but spanking a child with implements is legal in Washington state, and Gordon refused to answer the intake individual’s followup questions.

At one point in the conversation Gwen referred to Donna as “Mrs.” and Donna corrects her, telling her it is “Ms.” I feel like this is rather pointed—we’re reminded that Donna is not married, and are likely meant to see Donna as an uppity feminist. As for Gwen’s own divorce—surprising in a heroine in a book of this sort—well, we’ll get more on that later! Don’t worry, there are reasons, and Gwen’s divorce actually becomes one of the the elements driving the plot.

At any rate, Donna mentions receiving the complaint to the child abuse hotline “last Thursday,” which will become important, and tells Gwen that she has “a duty under state law to come into Casey’s home, examine her living environment” and speak with Casey personally. “I do hope you will be cooperative,” Donna adds. “It’s really in your best interest in the long run.” Here Donna is definitely being pushy. She doesn’t have a warrant and likely doesn’t have sufficient evidence to get a warrant. Talking her way in is the only way she can check on Casey’s wellbeing, and it’s clearly not working.

As I noted in the comments, I wonder if a solution to this problem (not just in this situation, but in general) would be to bring the child to the doorway so the social worker can see and talk to him or her without entering the home. To me this just looks like a no-win solution, because Gwen is in her rights not to let Donna in if that is her choice and Donna should respect that and not try to bully her way in, but for her part Donna needs to check on Casey’s wellbeing and doesn’t really have a good avenue for doing so except talking her way in however she can, which in this case means getting pushy. I would love it if some social workers could weigh in here! 

Suddenly, Gwen hears Casey running through the house to join her.

The last thing she wanted right now was to have this aggressive bureaucrat putting her four-year-old sweetheart through the third degree about who knows what.

With this thought, Gwen ends the conversation, telling Donna that she will not let her into her home if Donna won’t tell her what this is about. We are told that Gwen closed the door just before Casey “bounded up and hugged her leg.” Casey asks who was at the door, and Gwen puts off her questions.

We are not told where Gwen’s fear of social workers originated, simply that she stalls at the door and then ultimately refuses to let Donna in. We are told that Gwen does not want “some total stranger” to come in and “grill” her child, and that’s about it. Ultimately Gwen tells Donna she won’t let her in without knowing what the allegations are, but that does not appear to be the root of the issue here. After all, had Donna told her the allegations, would Gwen actually have been more willing to let her in? I sincerely doubt it.

The section ends with this:

Instinctively Gwen bent down, took Casey in her arms and patted and rubbed her back as she did whenever Casey had a bad dream at night. It was a comforting, gentle touch. Gwen didn’t realize it was she who was seeking comfort from her own fears that had arrived in broad daylight.

I have a mom friend whose little girl slipped out of the house and was lost for long enough that they called the police in panic. The little girl was located after about fifteen minutes of searching, but police procedure is to pass the information on to social services when they are called in for a missing child. So my mom friend got a call from social services, and she had her husband were asked to come in to the central office and speak with a social worker.

My mom friend was scared. What if she was deemed an unfit mother, she worried? I and her other mom friends told her it was okay, to just go in and let them know what had happened and answer their questions honestly. She did, and things went fine—the case was closed, no harm no foul.

Why do I share this anecdote? Because, I suppose, it’s only normal to feel nervous or apprehensive in a situation like this. But social workers don’t generally fabricate evidence or remove children for no reason. If they find a loving home and a happy and healthy child, they close the case as unfounded. That’s their goal, after all—loving homes and happy and healthy children. But of course, Farris doesn’t believe that that is their goal, and that is why we have this book.

In the next section, which is fairly short, Gwen calls her father and he comes over.

Dad, I am so scared. She acted like she might take Casey from me. She threatened that if I didn’t cooperate there might be trouble.

Gwen mentions being worried that Gordon would try to get custody of Casey during their divorce proceedings, which occurred sometime in the past. Her father reminds her that Gordon didn’t try to get custody, and that she never even needed a lawyer. Gwen wonders if she needs a lawyer now, and wonders where to find one. Her father says he doesn’t think she needs a lawyer, but that he met a lawyer while playing golf recently and can ask him.

I can’t believe we’re having this conversation. Thirty minutes ago I was pushing Casey on the swing in peace and sunshine. Now this.

Her dad asks more questions about what happened, and Gwen says Donna “gave me the creeps.” Her father says she’s probably making more of it than she needs to, and that he’s sure things will be fine. But of course, next we we will learn that this is not true. Next week, Donna will be back.

This entire setup just seems so unfortunate to me.

I understand why Gwen is afraid, but I also think part of her fear is built on popular misunderstandings of social services. Contrary to popular belief, social services does make a practice of taking children from their families unless they absolutely have to. While there are certainly occasional abuses (like with any other system), there is a high value placed on keeping families together and on healing families rather than dismantling them. In fact, social services not infrequently come under fire for putting children back with their families too readily (see, for example, the story of Emani Moss).

As for Donna, with her desire to protect children and the cases of horrific abuse she has seen, having to operate within tight legal limits must be difficult. She needs to check on Casey’s wellbeing, but knows that she cannot legally enter Gwen’s home without Gwen’s permission. She is wrong to be pushy or to try to threaten her way in, but I can sympathize with the position she is in here. It may be that Casey is fine, but it may also be that Casey is absolutely not fine, and she has no way to find out as long as Gwen keeps her on the doorstep and doesn’t let her see Casey.

I would appreciate it if any social workers out there would weigh in on this. Is asking a parent to bring a child to a neutral location an option? I suspect that this could not be required without a warrant, but perhaps mothers like Gwen would be more willing to assent to it voluntarily than to a home visit. And just in general, what is the solution here? If a parent refuses to let a social worker in, and the tip to the child abuse hotline was anonymous and without much detail (which I would imagine would make getting a warrant difficult), is that the end? Or is there another option?

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