If You Find Me is a novel with a lot of heart but, unfortunately, isn't very realistic in terms of plot, character development, or in its portrayal of the child welfare system.
If You Find Me tells the story of fourteen-year-old, Carey Blackburn, who lives in the wilderness with her younger sister, Jenessa, and her increasingly absent bipolar, meth addicted mother, who abducted Carey when she was four years old. Carey is the primary caregiver for her sister and is responsible for insuring their survival until one day their mother disappears for good and they are taken to live with Carey's father, a man Carey has always believed is abusive.
Before I go into why this novel didn't work for me I want to mention what did work. First and foremost the writing is simply beautiful. The descriptions are emotive and lyrical, and I enjoyed the quotes from Winnie the Pooh. I love Carey's voice, which comes across as authentic despite the fact that it's a bit too mature for a fourteen your old, even one who has bared as much responsibility as Carey has. Carey's desire to go back to what is familiar to her, despite the hardships she endured, was realistic as was her ambivalence towards her mother. I also thought Carey's relationship with her sister was touching. Murdoch does a good job of showing Carey's love for Jenessa through her devotion and protectiveness.
Unfortunately, I found the rest of the novel to be very problematic starting with the portrayal of the public child welfare system. It is completely unrealistic. Social workers are case managers not direct service providers. They rely on the recommendations from service providers (teachers, therapists, doctors, speech therapists etc.) in making their recommendations to the court and in deciding what is in the best interests of the child, and yet I saw the social worker in this book doing a lot of work that would have been done by the service providers. In addition to misunderstanding the role of the social worker, there are major procedural issues as well. All of them could have been avoided if the topic had been thoroughly researched. The Department of Children's Services in Tennessee has posted ample information about their policies and procedures here and here. Some of the inaccuracies I noted:
• Social workers do not bring non-offending parents with them to retrieve children from offending parents. This is a major liability issue. In all likelihood the social worker would have brought the police because the situation was potentially dangerous, and if not the police then at least another social worker.
• Social workers do not stay in motel rooms with the children they remove. This would be a huge liability for the department, not to mention expensive. The children either would have been immediately placed with Carey's father (assuming he and his family had had the proper background checks, and his home had been inspected thoroughly for child safety issues) or placed in foster care. Carey could be released to her father's custody fairly quickly, but since Jenessa is not related to him by blood he would have to be a licensed foster care provider for her to be placed with him, which doesn't happen in the span of 24 hours.
• A social worker also would not give the children her home phone number. This is a boundary issue, and while it may happen with long-term clients, it wouldn't happen with children who don't have a well-established relationship with the social worker.
• Upon taking Carey and Jenessa into custody, the social worker would have done a lengthy interview. The girls would have been asked details about how they had been living, about their mother's behavior, whether or not their mother had ever physically abused them, whether they had been sexually abused, etc. These interviews are very thorough because the information has to be reported to the court.
• The social worker would likely have looked for marks on the children and discovered the scars on Jenessa's back prior to them being place with Carey's father.
• The girls would have had a medical evaluation soon after being taken into care. If the scars hadn't been discovered by the social worker they would have been discovered by the doctor and there would have been interviews about them.
• The children would have had an attorney to represent them in court. in Tennessee they are known as a Guardian ad Litem. This attorney would have seen the children and spoken to them as required by law.
• Carey and Jenessa would have been court ordered to do individual therapy. Even if the social worker were completely incompetent and did not recommend this, their attorney most definitely would, and the judge would certainly order it.
• Social workers do not administer educational tests nor do they evaluate them or make recommendations based on them. Educational testing would be handled by the Department of Education.
• The children would not intentionally be kept out of school for a month. There are laws that require children to be in school, and most states have laws that require social workers to enroll the children in school within a certain timeframe, which is much shorter than a month (in California it's five days). This doesn't always happen because of incompetence but it's never the plan.
• The social worker would in no way be qualified to diagnose Jenessa as having selective mutism nor would she be qualified to recommend the frequency of visits with the speech therapist. Jenessa would be referred to speech therapy and the speech therapist would then make a recommendation as to how often she would need to be seen. This referral would have been made immediately not weeks after Jenessa was in care.
• In Tennessee there is a meeting within 30 days of the child's removal which includes the social workers, attorneys, parents, caregivers, children, and other interested parties specific to each case, to discuss the children's needs and services as well as the longterm plan. This meeting never occurred in the book.
• The social worker who initially removed Carey and Jenessa, Mrs. Haskell, would not be their social worker after the initial investigation was completed. They would have been assigned an on-going social worker who would do their monthly visits and review reports.
In addition to the inaccuracies relating to the child welfare system, I also found other aspects to be unbelievable. It would be almost impossible for two girls with an absentee, mentally ill, substance abusing mother, raised in the wilderness without monetary resources to be two grade levels ahead of where they're supposed to be. It's explained that the mother purchased school text books at yard sales, which would be nearly impossible since most children don't own their textbooks (they're borrowed from the school and returned at the end of the year, especially in the early grades). Children also typically require a responsible and invested adult to help them learn and Carey and Jenessa's mother was presented as anything but. Additionally, I thought it was unbelievable, given the level of Carey's mother's addiction, that she would not have sold her daughter's violin to buy drugs, and maybe food. She would have certainly sold it before selling her daughter's body.
The children's adjustment to living with Carey's father also doesn't ring true. Jenessa in particular adjusts much too quickly. It just isn't realistic given the kind of abuse she endured. There is also a real lack of exploration of Carey's feelings about living with her father. She believed so strongly that he had abused her that she did not go for help in the face of her mother's abuse and neglect yet she is willing to question the abuse shortly after being found by the social worker, and doesn't experience much fear. It also seems unrealistic that she would allow Jenessa out of her sight with a potentially abusive man around considering how protective she is of her.
Lastly, I was disappointed that there were so many YA tropes in this novel. Carey is a violin prodigy, a genius, and breathtakingly beautiful, all the makings of a special snowflake. Like all beautiful YA heroines, she doesn't know she's beautiful, although at least in this case there is a good reason. What isn't realistic was how everyone kept gushing about her beauty. There is also a popular boy who falls for Carey on her first day of school, one whom her nemesis and step-sister, Delany, has a crush on, but he isn't interested. Although his initial interest in Carey is explained later on, the development of their relationship and his deeper feelings towards her happen much too quickly. Delany also fits the trope of the bitchy blonde cheerleader who tortures the heroine because she's jealous. While there is a valid reason for her jealousy, I thought her behavior was over-the-top, and kept Delany from being a well-rounded and compelling character.
While I can understand why others loved this book, I could not get past the unbelievable plot points, inaccurate portrayal of the child welfare system, and the inclusion of so many YA tropes. I believe a book that tackles such serious issues needs to be realistic and this one definitely isn't.