The Goodbye Girl

A field agent for the Child Protective Services hunts for clues to unravel the mystery of a troubled Sacramento family

Social worker Misty Sanchez picked up the printout for her first emergency case of the week. The anonymous caller who turned the family in to Child Protective Services (CPS) had given the following details: “Grandparents have had child since late December. Father had child but there was no food in the home, no bed for the child. Grandparents no longer want to care for the child … ”

Sanchez scanned the measly paragraph looking for the red flags, the details that would drive her investigation and color her questions.

“Child appears to have mental health problems as well. She exhibits some bizarre behaviors, tics, sexualized behaviors. Father has a history of mental health and AOD (alcohol or drug) problems. Father’s been incarcerated … ”

Sanchez ran a background check on the father and added the results to her clipboard.

“ … Mother currently lives in a trailer. Her mom lives in the same trailer park. Mother has no phone, no car, no means of support for herself and her daughter. It is unknown if mother is clean and sober.”

Sanchez knew little more about the family except for their names, and their names were irrelevant. She regularly referred to each member of the family by title. The 10-year-old child became known as “the little girl.” Sanchez referred to the caretakers as “the grandparents.”

Never had the power of a name been more obvious. Once one slipped out, its bearer momentarily transcended the monochromatic nature of a chess piece following the narrow and accepted behaviors of “the mother” or “the dad.” (Since the Sacramento News & Review agreed to protect the names of CPS clients, we too will refer to family members by title.)

With her cell phone and her copy of the paperwork, Sanchez steered the big white county car out of the CPS parking lot and headed south. It was her job, one day each week, to shelve the files and reports related to her regular caseload, shore up her nerve, and investigate emergency calls as a runner for CPS.

“You never know what to expect,” she said.

The term “runner” seemed lifted from some tense mystery novel where an investigator, with the help of a few pitiful clues, has to uncover crimes, save helpless victims, and identify the villains.

In some cases, that wasn’t far off the mark. She had only a few days to contact family members and solve the mystery that materialized behind every emergency call. In some cases, it was the caller who was guilty.

“Fifty percent are false calls,” said Sanchez, “totally false reports.”

But in cases of substantiated abuse, she may have to involve law enforcement, wrest children from their desperate parents, reason with violent relatives or tell careless parents who had the best intentions that they’d failed. During the last fiscal year, Sacramento County’s emergency intake hotline received almost 44,000 calls regarding child abuse. Just over 3,000 were serious enough for a runner to get on the case right away.

Driving down Marconi, Sanchez glanced at a decrepit apartment complex. “Filled with probation and parolees,” she said, remembering what it was like to wade through neighbors standing around in the afternoon, watching her approach a door, potentially the most unpopular person in the world.

Sanchez works in her own neighborhood, so she has to regularly switch county cars to protect her identity while she works. It’s awkward, but she still runs into clients at the grocery store, or at her daughter’s classes.

“I’m religious,” she said, “so I pray.”

Though most cases are closed without action, perhaps because the original caller was mistaken, or overly suspicious, or biased, parents who have lost their children will say that’s little comfort. At a county Board of Supervisors meeting in January, and in subsequent protests, parents have claimed that social workers make false allegations and even manipulate drug test results to support their decisions. According to these parents, CPS is trying to increase its funding by putting more children into the system. As proof, parents claimed their kids were given to foster families even while grandparents begged to get custody of them.

Health and Human Services director Jim Hunt reported to the board in April that in investigating these claims, he did find instances when communication breakdowns led to such suspicions. Social workers should have communicated, for instance, that a grandparent’s prior drug use or criminal history may have kept him or her from gaining custody. Hunt attributed this to excessive caseloads, a common complaint that always leads him to propose the same solution: increase CPS’s budget. This infuriates parents who believe CPS already has too many resources if they can afford to send social workers out to harass their families.

Sanchez has a great deal of freedom when she’s in the field. She’s obligated to get answers to a standard list of questions and report back to her supervisor, but personality and interpretation play a part. And though caseworkers like Sanchez, who has a master’s degree in social work, are well trained, the department is hurting for staff, and relies occasionally on employees without graduate degrees in the field.

Because of these variables, no single story can accurately describe how CPS handles the typical emergency child abuse case. The social worker is an investigator with a tight schedule, the facts are slippery, and everyone has an agenda.

After five years on the job, Sanchez knows this walking in. And still, the SN&R found that even veterans like her can be surprised by the complexities of human behavior.

Sanchez pulled the car up to a curb and squinted at a small ranch-style house on a quiet cul-de-sac. With no lights on, the house seemed empty. It was late afternoon on a Thursday. Most girls with usual school hours would have been home by then.

Sanchez stepped onto the porch and glanced in at a man reclined in an easy chair, staring at nothing. He didn’t move until she knocked.

Short and slight, with graying bangs overhanging his brow, the grandfather looked like a frail Harry Dean Stanton. He invited Sanchez into a living room decorated brightly with Pottery Barn pillows and whimsical artwork.

“She’s pining for her mother,” the grandfather said, slowly reclining again in his chair, his voice pressing into Sanchez just how grieved the girl was. He said she didn’t take to male authority figures, especially himself, and that she wet the bed a lot.

“I like her,” he said, “but I can’t do this little kiddie thing anymore.”

He seemed sympathetic, even moved by the dramatic sadness of his young granddaughter. “The thing about the girl,” he said, “she’s kind of lost … she feels a little lost.”

The young girl’s mother—who lives in this local trailer park—is the first to admit this is no place to raise a child.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Sanchez, who has a whispery voice and big eyes that seemed both deferential and kind, asked him about the sexualized behaviors. He said he thought she might be entering puberty early. He offered no other information.

Mental health issues? Sanchez asked.

Not that he knew of.

The grandfather said she was pliant and easy to discipline. Occasionally, she whined or threw herself around. Normal temper tantrum stuff. He’d only had to spank her once, with his open hand.

It was interesting to Sanchez that most of his mild responses contradicted the severity implied by the report. When Sanchez read that the girl apparently needed glasses, he said she’d just gotten used to reading things up close. When Sanchez asked if the mother was able to care for the girl, he couldn’t see why not. To him, she appeared to have no other responsibilities.

Did the mother have any drug or alcohol problems? Sanchez asked.

I wouldn’t know, the grandfather answered, obviously unconcerned. He said he didn’t have much patience with his daughter-in law.

Sanchez asked if she could see where the girl slept, and the grandfather showed her a television room with a couch that pulled out into a bed.

Sanchez concluded the interview and left, puzzled.

In the car, she ticked off her concerns. He said he liked her, but not that he loved her. The report mentioned bizarre and sexualized behaviors, but he didn’t know anything about that. Still, she concluded, there was no doubt he wanted the girl out of his home. She wondered if he might be hurt because she wasn’t bonding with him.

“She hasn’t been there long enough to give it a fair trial,” said Sanchez.

Something else disturbed her. The grandfather had claimed that the little girl didn’t like men. Though Sanchez didn’t suspect the grandfather of any sexual misconduct, she couldn’t quite rule it out. She decided to ask the girl about any inappropriate touching.

Caseworkers responding to emergency calls get used to acting on hunches, but once they’ve “stabilized the household,” their unanswered questions evaporate. They pass the case on to a family maintenance program, or take the child into protective custody and get their reports ready for family court services. It’s an emergency situation. They have to work quickly and move on.

At the neighborhood private school, Sanchez bristled when the administrator refused to let her interview the girl on campus, where the child usually played until dusk.

“They’re not allowed to interfere,” the social worker said.

In talking with the administrator, Sanchez was surprised to discover that the educator empathized more with the grandfather than the child. The girl just wouldn’t accept him, the administrator said, and he was obviously just trying to do the right thing.

Sanchez determined to interview the girl as soon as possible and had the grandfather come pick her up.

When Sanchez arrived back at the house, the girl was already in her room changing into a summer dress and sandals. She came bouncing out, a slight girl all in red with her shoulder length hair combed straight. She entered the sun porch with Sanchez and they closed the door. Sitting close at a round table, the girl looked up into Sanchez’s face and answered her questions with just a hint of cunning. She’d heard that she might move back to her mom’s, and she seemed to know Sanchez was the key.

Sanchez started slowly, warming the girl up with easy questions about her family.

“Anybody you don’t get along with?” she asked.

“Grandpa,” said the girl, without any apparent anger. “I don’t know why. He talks real low and I can’t hear him and then I get in trouble.”

Sanchez asked about discipline.

Spankings almost every night, the girl said, rolling her eyes. But not this week, she added, without further explanation. Sanchez asked if anyone had ever touched her in the places covered by a bathing suit. The girl understood the veiled question. It seemed possible that all of Sanchez’s questions were equally transparent to a smart child.

“No,” she said.

“If someone did touch you, would you have someone you could tell?”


Sanchez asked what the girl thought of her father’s place.

“It’s creepy,” she said, which contrasted sharply with her description of her mother’s place: “It’s a big house, and I have my own bed.”

Photo by Larry Dalton

While talking, the girl drew or fidgeted. But when she talked about something exciting, like seeing her mom, she ran her tongue swiftly around her lips. She seemed entirely unaware of having done it.

Thinking about clues, Sanchez asked her about wetting the bed.

“When did that start?” Sanchez asked.

“Here,” the girl said.

Sanchez made note that some trauma may have occurred. Usually, children didn’t digress like that.

The girl said she was made to sniff the sheets, strip the bed, put the sheets in the wash, fold them afterward and then remake the bed. She described a “machine” that she wore attached to her underwear that would beep when it got wet. It hurt her skin.

Sanchez mentally smoothed over the rough differences between the girl’s account and the grandfather’s. Everyone might be stretching the truth to get the same result, she thought. They all wanted the girl to return to her mother.

Do you have any questions for me? Sanchez asked.

The girl stopped fidgeting. She tensed.

“I’m going to write a note,” she said.

“Write a note to your mom?” asked Sanchez.

“No,” said the girl, “to you.” She pointed shyly at Sanchez. “I like to write notes.”

When she finished, she folded and refolded the piece of paper and handed it over. She licked the tips of her fingers, as if she were going to smooth down a cowlick. It was a nervous behavior that she repeated when excited.

“Don’t be embarrassed about that question,” the child said brightly.

After reading the note, Sanchez refolded it, and used her most gentle voice to tell the girl that she was going to visit the mom that night and ask her some private questions. The girl seemed satisfied. She bounded away to get her grandmother, who had just come in the front door.

Asked what the girl wrote in the note, Sanchez replied, “She asked if she could come with me to her mom’s, and then she put yes or no and wanted me to circle one.”

Why didn’t she simply ask out loud?

“My first thought,” said Sanchez, “would be that she doesn’t want me to say no. She’d rather have me circle it.”

The grandmother, who looked younger and more stylish than her husband, walked onto the sun porch, pulled her chair away from the table and sat, crossing her legs and her arms.

When they found that the dad couldn’t provide for the child after the mother walked out, she said, they took the girl in with “high hopes.” But it wasn’t working out. Ultimately, the grandmother stressed, she was the responsibility of the parents.

“She won’t let my husband interact with her at all,” she said. “She won’t answer him. She’s belligerent. She’s just a difficult kid.”

Unlike the grandfather, the grandmother had some doubts about the mother’s parenting abilities. She remembered the child coming home filthy from visits. But she also doubted the father’s abilities. He picked her up and dropped her off at the mother’s every weekend, but otherwise, had little or no contact with her. At least he hadn’t abandoned her, she stressed.

“She,” the grandmother added, referring to the mother, “definitely abandoned her.”

As the interview came to a close, the grandmother grew increasingly sympathetic. She wanted to know if a combination between her house and the father’s house would work. She wanted to know what would happen in the future if the girl were taken into custody now.

“I don’t mean to sound hard,” she said, explaining that she and her husband had already raised their children. Her husband had cancer, she said. They just couldn’t handle another child.

In the car afterward, Sanchez breathed out what she’d been unable to say inside.

“They’re even willing to let her go to foster care,” she said in her whispery voice, nodding. “Yeah. That’s just like, wow, you know? … It’s rare that nobody wants the kid.”

Mentally picking through the interviews, Sanchez decided that the child exaggerated the number of spankings, since she’d contradicted herself. She also determined that the parents exaggerated when they said they didn’t punish her for wetting the bed. They apparently did.

Social worker Misty Sanchez investigates local child abuse cases and then decides whether children should remain with their families or enter foster care.

Photo by Larry Dalton

What puzzled Sanchez most was the discrepancy between the girl’s behavior and the report. Where were the bizarre or sexualized behaviors? And though the grandfather and the girl weren’t close, they weren’t too antagonistic to live in the same house together. It began to look like the girl was simply an inconvenience—to almost everyone.

The sun was going down, and Sanchez’s own daughter was waiting for her, but she didn’t want to put off meeting the mother, who might be the easy answer to all of this. She headed west as it got dark. As the neighborhoods grew increasingly rundown, Sanchez wilted.

The cheery sign at the entrance to the trailer park had grown faded and rusty. Sanchez drove down a row of trailers, noting the ragged tarps covering damaged roofs, the rust, the garbage, the rutted road. The car made a tight turn and cruised slowly up another row of trailers. Sanchez passed discarded rocking chairs, plywood and tires. A filthy stuffed animal perched on top of what looked like a shortened telephone pole. A knot of men stopped talking and gazed into the car with immobile faces.

The address corresponded to one of the better-kept trailers. Its paint was faded, but a light spilled out from the front windows over a sun-bleached wooden deck.

Sanchez left the car by the concrete laundry room. The men behind her moved out of sight. Inside the trailer, an older woman with tubes attached to her nose and her arm sat in a bunk beside a tiny open window and asked politely through the window what she could do for Sanchez. Two fine-featured cats crawled around her legs and stuck their noses out.

Sanchez asked after the girl’s mother, who apparently lived in a different trailer in the same park.

“That’s my baby,” said the older woman.

Almost immediately, the child’s mother approached from around the rear of the county car, leading a well-groomed dog. She had big front teeth and a defensive look in her eyes, but she turned out to be polite and well spoken, like her own mother, who remained genteel even in a decrepit trailer park.

As soon as Sanchez started her questioning, the mother said she wished she could care for her daughter, but she just couldn’t right now. This was no place to raise a child, she said.

Was she on assistance? Sanchez wondered. Was she ever arrested? Was she clean and sober?

“What drug do you use?” she asked the mother.

The woman’s face, for just a moment, tensed. She struggled with an answer.

“Meth,” she said, nodding her head a few times, swiftly.

“When was the last time you used?” Sanchez asked her.

“A couple of weeks ago,” said the mother, still nodding. Sanchez thought a couple of days was more like it.

Throughout the interview, the mother remained critical of the trailer park, but also seemed prone to a bulletproof optimism about the future, some vague time when she and her daughter would be permanently reunited. Her daughter had exhibited the same trait when she described a large house with a bed all her own.

Across the park, the mother tied the dog outside and pushed open the rickety door of one of the park’s smallest trailers. The ceiling was covered in a hard brownish foam that might have been insulation. The floor was dirty, but there were clean dishes in a small drainer. Tucked between the trailer’s back wall and the mini-refrigerator was a makeshift bed just big enough for a large dog.

“That’s where she sleeps when she visits,” said the mom.

Children’s drawings hung directly across from the mother’s full-sized bed, which was the largest thing in the trailer.

Sanchez kept her face still. Calmly, she told the mother that the child could not live with her in these conditions. In fact, she wouldn’t even be allowed to stay overnight again.

The mother’s optimistic smile dissolved. Tears came and went sporadically as Sanchez outlined services like outpatient and inpatient drug treatment programs, housing programs, parenting classes. The mother nodded enthusiastically and took the cards and pamphlets.

Sanchez stepped down out of the trailer with a grim face. Her perfect solution could not have been less promising. The mother untied the dog and followed Sanchez back to her car, visibly miserable.

As Sanchez pulled away, her headlights flashed across the street and over the stark image of the mother and the dog on a patch of grass. The mother was hugging herself, looking around fleetingly. She stomped in the cold.

“She’s probably going to go use right now,” said Sanchez, clearly disappointed. The mother was the only person in the world to whom the girl seemed bonded.

The last resort would be to talk with the girl’s father, though the mother confessed that he used drugs as well.

“It takes a lot for me to P.C. someone (place into protective custody),” said Sanchez. “It’s a very last resort.”

Around this time, CPS was advised by county counsel to cut off further contact between journalists and CPS clients. Apparently, the SN&R was flirting dangerously with murky confidentiality issues. This put the paper in an awkward position, having followed a mystery nearly to its conclusion. With disappointment, a reporter had to rely on Sanchez and the mother to fill in an account of the final chapters.

Health and Human Services director Jim Hunt defends against parents who claim that CPS too often seizes children from loving families.

Luckily, Sanchez kept in contact after meeting with the father. Since only the ride-alongs were halted, she had the freedom to describe her experiences in detail.

She said his small studio, sans kitchen, was furnished with not much more than a bed and a television—unless you counted the mess. Piled with boxes and books, the place was disorganized but fairly clean. The father, who stood nearly 6 feet, was skinny, and had the hangdog compliant look of a drug addict.

He blamed the mother, said Sanchez. It was because she left that he could no longer look for work and take care of the girl at the same time. When Sanchez offered assistance, he agreed to everything. Drug tests, housing referrals, even drug assessment, where the counselors insisted that clients be entirely honest about past drug use.

“He went and did the assessment,” said Sanchez, excited that the girl might have a home with him. It was the best of a few poor options.

“Usually, our clients say they’re going to do it and they don’t … and he was pretty honest.”

When the report came back to Sanchez, she learned that at 39, the father had been using methamphetamine for more than half his life.

Sanchez would soon need to move on—it was time for the busy investigator to turn her attention to new emergencies, new mysteries. Knowing she was leaving the family with all its greatest challenges still ahead, Sanchez decided to move the child from the grandparents’ back to the father’s once he got clean. It seemed the only workable solution.

Her questions about the child’s nervous habits and her mild animosity toward men seemed to dissolve overnight. The father would have to make enormous changes: job, home, drugs, friends … everything would have to change. And he had so little time to transform himself into an adequate parent. Only if the father’s drug tests started coming back clean within a couple of months, and he moved into assisted living, would he retain custody.

Sanchez said she made a routine visit to the mother’s trailer with bus tickets on a Monday, four days after first meeting her. She looked “really deplorable,” according to Sanchez. She described how the mother had held out her hand to shake, but then looked down and found it “covered in blood.” The mother vaguely described a cut, said Sanchez, who just maintained her composure and shook the woman’s other hand. She said that the mother had obviously been using drugs, and in daylight, it was easier to see that many of her back teeth were missing, that her eyes were dilated, and that she hadn’t bathed. “Her hands were just covered in dirt,” said Sanchez.

Such a visit left the social worker contemplative. “It’s amazing,” said Sanchez, “that this little girl—out of all the people, she wants to live with this mother, because the mother loves her.”

But placing the child with the mother seemed impossible. Sanchez had to maintain her faith in the father. The only other option was foster care.

Jim Hunt, director of Health and Human Services, said that many times, if a child doesn’t bond with the foster family, they’re kicked out of the house at 18 with no resources, no family support, no advisers. Many of these children end up with early pregnancies, or they end up back in the system, as arrestees.

“I don’t know about you,” said Hunt from his office, “but when I was 18 … ” He sat back in his chair with a but-for-the-grace-of-God laugh.

“If you … interview homeless persons,” he said, “about a third of them will say they have been in the foster care system at one time or another.”

Sanchez was nearing the end of her involvement with the case, but if anything, the family was in greater turmoil now than when she found them. The child was no longer exposed to the dangers of the trailer park on the weekends, and both parents said they were considering drug treatment, but the mother and the daughter remained distraught. In spite of her other commitments, Sanchez kept getting calls.

The grandmother called and said she was worried that the father wasn’t doing everything he should. She pushed back her deadline. She’d keep the child until June.

The father called. He said he was homeless, but offered no explanation. He asked casually if Sanchez had referred him to Sacramento Emergency Housing. Though he remained compliant, it looked as if he were slipping, maybe even sabotaging the situation.

The mother didn’t call, but weeks later, SN&R sought her out at the same trailer park. The girl’s bed was missing from its tiny nook of the trailer and the stereo stood near its old spot. The mother moved aside a curtain. Tucked into a shallow bunk, walls and ceiling covered in green shag carpeting, were the same blankets and covers.

“That’s where she sleeps now,” said the mother, “when she comes.”

Lovingly, she talked about recarpeting the trailer, fixing it up, but these words conflicted with other statements about getting out of the park and living in a “regular place” by summer, so she could bring her daughter home. “That’s what I want,” she said.

She’d made little progress toward accepting services, but maybe she thought them unnecessary. She claimed she’d already been clean for two weeks.

“I’m starting to gain the weight back,” she said, showing off like a young girl, slapping at the layer of fat that pushed past the waist of her jeans.

With her hair curled, her clothes clean, her eyes rimmed with blue liner, she smiled coquettishly while she talked about the great guy she’d recently met, and about pulling her life back together. Everything was going her way, she implied.

Her optimism went forward into the future and back into the past. She bragged about what a natural she was on the phones at her last job, even if it had only been job training. She reminisced about past weekend visits with her daughter, giving scanty details of hazily remembered afternoons in Old Sacramento. “That’s my baby,” she said once, dissolving momentarily into tears again. “If I lose her, I’ll go right back to the drugs. I’ll tell you that right now.”

Easily distracted, she returned to happier memories. Her daughter wanted to be the first lady president of the United States, she said, slapping her thigh and gazing at the trailer’s bubbly brown ceiling with a self-satisfied smile. Using a sweet girlish voice, she quoted her daughter.

“'Mom, when I do become the president of the United States, you’re going to come live with me. I’m going to take care of you.’” The mother laughed.

“That made me feel good,” she said.

In her fantastic reality, the mother imagined that she and her daughter would be reunited by summer, but if she remained in the trailer park surrounded by drugs, such a reunion was next to impossible.

The mother realized that Sanchez’s first visit had set everything in motion, but the mother didn’t blame her. “It was something I wish would have never happened,” was all she would say on the subject, and even that was said with a mild, wistful grin.

When asked what she’d give the girl if she could give her anything in the world, the mother maintained her optimism. “Me,” she said proudly with a sharp nod of the head. “Me, me, me!”