First we get an update on Donna’s relationship with Stephen:
Donna Corliss heard from Stephen Stockton about once a week by phone. She wrote to him two or three times a week. He wrote rarely. The girls in D.C. were interesting, but none had yet captivated his imagination. Donna still loomed somewhere in his affections, if not his loyalty.
First of all, Stephen, you are a D-bag. But also, life before the internet was weird, man. I had a penpal in 2001, when I was in high school, and we used email. But this book was published in 1996. The letters bit still strikes me as odd though—why not just talk more frequently by phone? Anyway, the real takeaway is that things haven’t definitely ended between Stephen and Donna yet, but it’s pretty obvious Stephen is doing the bare minimum to keep things up on his end.
So next we get three pages of discussion between Donna and Rita. Donna is becoming less concerned about the investigation, because the police haven’t asked to speak with her. She’s worried, though, that Olympia may send a computer team to do a full review of the computers, an internal investigation of sorts.
Actually, let me pause here to discuss that possibility, because it’s actually an interesting one. The entire point of Gail’s defense—arguing that social workers can’t be sued for things they do once a case has been opened—is that social workers who engage in misconduct are supposed to be punished not by being subject to a civil lawsuit but rather by being subject to an internal review and being fired, and perhaps also legally prosecuted, for failing to uphold their duties. This can and does happen.
For example, four social workers in California are currently being charged for falsifying records and other misconduct in a case involving an eight-year-old boy who was beaten to death by his mother. The child and his mother were known to social services, but social workers did not make the visits they were supposed to make and then falsified records after the boy’s death to make it look like they had made those visits. The misconduct was turned up in an internal investigation after the boy’s death. The four social workers are being criminally charged for their negligence and for the falsification of public records, and face up to ten years in prison each.
In other words, the courts that set the precedent Peter is finding himself up against didn’t rule that social workers can’t be sued in civil court because they want social workers to be able to do whatever the hell they want, but rather because they deemed that the accountability provided by internal review was a better assurance than that provided by allowing anyone ever investigated by social services to sue social workers on any pretenses. Now sure, you could end up with a situation where an entire state’s social services administration is corrupt. But even then you do have the legislature to provide accountability, and presumably the feds can be called in to conduct an investigation of their own if need be.
I’m not sure whether a state agency would put an internal review on hold in a situation like this, waiting for the lawsuit to end before conducting an internal investigation—it actually seems like doing the investigation might be in their best interests, as it would put everything above board and make it clear they’re not hiding anything—but either way, it’s clear that if Peter doesn’t catch and punish Rita and Donna, the state agency will. And that, quite frankly, is how it’s supposed to work.
This is perhaps the central irony of this book—far from scaring parents about big bad evil social services, it tells a story where the bad guys face justice, not just from the book’s Good Christian Hero, but also from their own agency’s internal process. Donna and Rita are under pressure to find new jobs and move, out of concern about what a pending future internal investigation will reveal. Blackburn died, but even if he hadn’t, even if his attempt to run had been successful, he’d be a fugitive from the law, never able to get another job in his field. The consequences of committing fraud are clear. You will get caught. You will be punished. That seems like a rather comforting message for any conservative parent worried about child protective services overreach.
Anyway, Rita says she’ll talk to a friend in Sacramento about getting a job for the social services lobbyists in that state, and Donna says she’ll hopefully marry Stephen and move to D.C., which she suspects wouldn’t be seen as suspicious. Rita says that as a legislative analyst she’d try to pass laws that better allow social workers to effectively do their jobs, so that they don’t have to engage in any hijinks to catch child abusers. Donna says she’s not sure whether Stephen still wants her. The scene closes.
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