Anonymous Tip: Where Things Go Haywire

Anonymous Tip: Where Things Go Haywire January 16, 2015

Anonymous Tip: A Review Series

As you may remember, we are reviewing Michael Farris’s 1996 novel, Anonymous Tip. If you have missed the series so far, you still have time to catch up—we are only a few weeks in. Let me review for a moment, to make sure what has happened so far is still fresh in everyone’s minds!

In the first installment, Gordon called the child abuse tip line to make a false report on his ex-wife, Gwen, regarding their four-year-old daughter, Casey. He didn’t give his name or relationship to the child, saying only that “there’s this little girl whose mom is really mean . . . her mom beats her . . . with a stick . . . like a ruler or something.” He didn’t give his name or any other information, which frustrated the intake officer.

In the second installment, we met Donna Corliss, the social worker who is the villain of the story—and somehow both the best social worker on her team and willing to let a week go by before following up on child abuse tips. We also met her drunken star law student trust fund boyfriend. In the third installment, we met Gwen and Casey, a happy mother and daughter, and witnessed Donna’s unsuccessful attempt to gain access to their home or speak with Casey.

Today things escalate—fast.

I asked two weeks ago for readers who are familiar with social work to give input into what would actually have happened after Gwen refused to let Donna into her home to speak with her daughter Casey. As we saw, Donna didn’t ask Gwen to bring Casey to speak with her at a neutral location—something she could have done. Several readers pointed out that Donna could also have spoken with neighbors or Casey’s childcare providers, if there were any—neither of which Gwen even attempts to do. Other readers noted that in their opinion, with so little to go on and so many other cases, a social worker in Donna’s position might simply close the case. Of course, Donna does not do this either.

What does Donna do? She comes back with a second social worker (Rita Coballo) and two police officers (Mark Donahue and Ken Dailey) the next morning to force her way in. Farris sets us up with some dialogue between Donahue and Dailey before they leave their cop car:

“Geez, Dailey, I hate these assignments,” Donahue said in frustration. “I don’t know why they can’t call ahead and try to work things out. Half the time they never even know if there is anything wrong.”

“Yeah, I know,” Dailey answered.

“When they’ve got strong evidence of an emergency I’m all for it. But fuzzy deals like this one are something else,” Donaue said.

“Well, the City Attorney’s office always tells us that child abuse cases are an exception. Warrants for everything else, but in child abuse investigations its unnecessary,” Officer Dailey answered.

“Thanks for the information, Wonder Boy. Next time tell me something I don’t know,” Donahue said sarcastically. “I’m just saying I don’t like it.”

This dialogue seems incredibly pointed—too pointed. Farris doesn’t seem to be a big proponent of “show, don’t tell.”

But of course, this dialogue is also wrong. Child abuse investigations are an exception from the ordinary warrant requirement only when there are eminent circumstances. In other words, there has to be evidence of grave danger. Donna had no such evidence, and the officers’ dialogue suggests she never said she had any such evidence at all. Instead, it suggests that this is routine for them.

Farris would likely point to the Loudermilk Case and others like it as evidence that this does happen—and I’m sure that is true. But when it does, it is reason for ensuring that the system has accountability—after all, any system without accountability can become tyrannical. But Farris is not portraying this as the rare case when the system goes wrong but rather as the normal way the system functions. And as we shall see, Farris’s description of what happens is calculated to strike fear into the heart of any parent.

Donna rings the doorbell and Gwen opens the door. (As an aside, Farris calls them “Corliss” and “Gwen.” Why he uses Donna’s last name and Gwen’s first name I have no idea.) Farris says that Gwen was “paralyzed with fear,” and that “seeing the fear in Gwen’s eyes, Corliss lifted one eyebrow in triumph.” Farris is clearly portraying Donna as someone with a vendetta. When Gwen asks Donna if she has a warrant, Donna responds with this:

“You’ve been watching too much television, Mrs. Landis. A warrant simply is not necessary in these kinds of situations.”

As we know, this is false. Gwen turns to Officer Donahue and asks whether they can do this, and while we are told that Donahue “really did want to help” Gwen, what he actually said was: “I’m very sorry ma’am. These ladies are right.”

Rita Coballo bristled at the sexist term “ladies.” She glared at Officer Donahue but said nothing.

Yep, I knew Donna’s insistence on being called “Ms.” in the last installment was pointed.

And so, Gwen lets Donna, Rita, and Officer Donahue into her home. Donna immediately calls for Casey, who comes out of her room, unsure. Donna speaks to her with “practiced sweetness” and asks to talk with her in her room for a moment. Casey turns to her mother with “fear-filled eyes,” but Donna and Rita have already pushed her toward her room. When Gwen tries to go after them, Officer Donahue physically prevents her.

The door closed behind them, Donna and Rita speak with Casey alone. “Rita and I help little children,” Donna tells Casey. “We want to help you.” Casey runs to her bed, picks up a doll, and turns to look at them apprehensively. And then the questioning begins in earnest.

Social workers receive training in how to speak with and interview children, but I am not a social worker and do not know is considered to be best practices. I’d be glad for input from readers who are familiar with social work. Donna begins by asking “Casey, are you afraid of anyone?” They then end up on a tangent which ultimately turns out to be about Taz chasing Daffy Duck on television. Donna then rephrases the question, and finally asks “Are you ever afraid of your mommy?” There is some back and forth, during which Casey ultimately says that her mother sometimes yells at her when she does something bad.

“Does your mommy ever hit you?” Donna now asks. Casey says she doesn’t think so, but then Donna asks if her mother ever spanks her.

“Uh-huh,” she nodded, her lips pressed together in a faint smile, glad that she could finally answer a question in a way this lady seemed to like.

Farris is being very intentional here. From what I’ve read of what he’s written, he has concerns about social workers using leading questions to get children to admit to things that aren’t actually occurring. But social workers know that leading questions are a thing, and from what I do know about social work technique, they are trained not to ask leading questions, and to work against suggesting to the child that they want any particular answer.

Let me put it like this. If social workers’ goal is to ensure that children are not being abused, how would it serve this goal to use leading questions or techniques to get children to admit to abuse that is not actually occurring? It wouldn’t.

Donna then asks Casey what Gwen spanks her with, and Casey says she sometimes spanks her with her hand and sometimes with a wooden spoon. When asked if it hurts a lot, Casey shrugs.

“Casey, I need you to take off your clothes like you do when you go to the doctor so I can see if you are all right.”

Here things go downhill. Farris writes that “The mounting strangeness of the whole episode finally broke through Casey’s four-year-old emotional barrier, and she began to cry.” Casey asked for her mommy, but Donna replied that “the rules say she can’t come in right now.” Casey’s crying then escalated.

Outside the door, Gwen became frantic. When she made a move for the door, Officer Donahue “laid his hand on his holster.”

“I’m supposed to just stand here while those witches are molesting my daughter?” [Gwen] thundered.

Farris tells us that “Gwen had never been more stricken with panic and despair in her entire life.” Gwen wanted to go to her daughter and comfort her, and prevented from doing so she “put her hands over her face and began to sob convulsively.”

Back in the room, Donna and Rita fought with Casey. “Mommy, Mommy!” Casey screamed as she resisted.

Corliss was tired of going slowly. She moved with firm deliberation. She quickly grabbed Casey’s other arm and held her down on the bed. “Rita, quick, take off her shirt and jeans and pull her panties down. Quickly.”

Casey writhed in terror. Her cries turned to screams as the two social workers stripped all her clothes off.

Again, if readers are able to weigh in on how strip searches of this sort are conventionally carried out, I would appreciate it. In may admittedly lay opinion, I would assume that social workers do their utmost to ensure that they do not traumatize a child. In stating that “Corliss was tired of going slowly” and then describing her holding Casey down so Rita could strip her, Farris is clearly making a point of showing that Donna does not actually care about children’s wellbeing—and in this moment, she certainly does not seem to.

And just what did Donna and Rita find? Nothing. No bruises, no scrapes.

The investigators’ eyes met, expressing grim disappointment. They wanted to get back at this woman for bucking their authority. Finding no bruises, they were out of business.

For Donna and Rita, it isn’t about Casey’s wellbeing at all. It’s about getting back at Gwen for not letting Donna in the first time. In case it’s not already clear, I very much think Donna and Rita are in the wrong here. In valuing revenge against a parent over a child’s wellbeing, they are forgetting the core principles that they signed onto when they began social workers. And frankly, if they are that easily rattled by a parent, they are not very good social workers at all.

By this point, Casey is all-out sobbing.

“I’m sorry, Casey, If you would have just cooperated, it wouldn’t have been so bad.”

What kind of social worker says that to a four-year-old? 

Donna and Gwen leave Casey’s bedroom and head back to the living room. Farris tells us that “Gwen sept up her terrified daughter in her own violently shaking arms.” Donna tells Gwen that now that she has talked to Casey she can tell her about the nature of the investigation. She suggests that Gwen may want Casey to leave the room, But Gwen refuses to be parted from her daughter again. Donna tells Gwen that

“We received a complaint night-before-last that you spank Casey in an excessive manner.”

Gwen goes on to ask Casey about her spanking practices, and Gwen says that she does spank Casey sometimes but never excessively. Gwen is adamant that she has never bruised her daughter. When Gwen says Casey has never been hurt by spanking, Donna tells her that “the great weight of psychological opinion” disagrees with her on that. Gwen asks if Donna is saying spanking is illegal, and Donna calls it “legally unwise” and suggests she take advantage of their “wonderful parenting courses.”

“The only thing I want from you is to get out of my house and leave me and my daughter alone. Go! Now!”

“We will be leaving shortly,” Corliss said, emphasizing her control, “but your attitude is just prolonging everything.”

And that is pretty much the tenor of their entire conversation. As Donna and Rita walk to the door, Donna tells Gwen that they will be writing a report and that they will send a copy along.

“Just leave. You . . . you . . . witches . . . Nazis . . . just leave! Get out! Now!” Gwen screamed.

As Donna and Rita leave, Gwen adds these last parting words:

“So help me, I’m going to sue you for this!”

Farris tells us that once Donna and Rita were gone, Gwen held Casey and rocked her, and the two of them sobbed into each other’s arms as Gwen told Casey that she wouldn’t let anyone else hurt her. Finally, Gwen carries Casey to the kitchen and calls her father (Casey’s grandfather). The two then continue crying together until he arrives.

Real quick, I want to make sure you noticed something—Donna told Gwen that they’d received the tip “night-before-last”—in other words, the night before Donna first came to Gwen’s door. As we know, this is not true. The call actually came into the hotline Thursday night, a full week prior to this visit, and six days before the original visit the day before. Why did Donna lie? We’ll find out later.

So let’s review the kind of social worker Donna is. She waits six days to investigate a complaint (and not because she has more urgent complaints to follow up on), she fails to do due diligence when she finally does investigate that complaint (i.e., talk with neighbors, talk to Gwen’s ex or Casey’s childcare providers), she lies about what the law says (claiming that a warrant is unnecessary), she feels no guilt about traumatizing a child (forcibly strip searching Casey because putting in the time to ensure that the search is consensual is just too much work), she cares more about her anger at Gwen for not opening the door to her on the first visit than she does about Casey’s wellbeing (she is actually disappointed to find no bruises on Casey), and she has no compulsion about lying in front of both Gwen and Officer Donahue about when the tip came in, something that could easily be checked to verify.

Wow. That’s a lot.

And yet, Farris describes Donna as her boss’s star social worker.

But don’t worry. We’ve only just completed the first chapter.

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