‘Animal Crackers’

The forensic child psychologist:

her job is to deal with children facing the courts.

Her skill? Understanding what a child is really saying.

Her secret? Unravelling grown-ups’ lies.

 

Proposal for a 1 hour x 6 ep drama series

Overview

Take the best of the CSI format and remove the numbing, quick-cut editing and smart-aleck dialogue to unearth the deeply human nature of crime, passion, violence and compassion.

Add children.

Tie the episodes together on an emotional level with a capable but scarred protagonist, knowable supporting characters and stories that smack us in the face with the everyday anguish of families when things go terribly wrong.

Add a cast of supporting characters that resonate with the viewer and inject an ongoing narrative tension with the protagonist.

Yes, some of the episodes will deal with child abuse. Some will involve violent crime. None will rely on formulaic police drama clichés to draw the viewer in.

Background

The courts have rigid protocols when dealing with children. Our protagonist, forensic child psychologist Shannon Lawley, is, in a real sense, a ‘guardian’ who judges a child’s fitness to appear, coaxes out the background factors, makes sense of often contradictory evidence and then guides the child (and family) through the labyrinths of the court system.

Her job also entails dealing with legal representatives from both sides. Over the years, she has befriended some, made enemies of others and even learned to love one hard-shelled legal aid lawyer.

Her dealings with the Child Protection Department are more problematical. Apart from one officer (who has secrets of her own), Shannon would write the entire monolithic department off as an immoral waste of taxpayers’ money.

 

Structure

Each episode will centre round a court case involving a child. The child may be a witness, a victim, a perpetrator or the centre of a custody battle. The fact that they are under 18 means that Shannon becomes involved.

Through the major story-lines we weave stories of her private patients. These are, unsurprisingly, the offspring of the well-to-do, well informed or simply hysterical parents. This thread will contrast with her court work (compare sub-teen Bulimia with rape and incest).

The continuing threads are spun out of the interaction between our major characters; active, changing relationships that form a backdrop (and sometimes a mirror) to the key storylines.

A major question that is posed from Episode 1 is – why does a child’s song have such a powerful effect on Shannon? ‘Animal Crackers’ seems an odd ditty to rattle a psychologist – but it does.

Major Characters

Dr Shannon Lawley; late thirties. Divorced. An immediately likeable, no frills woman who could be attractive but seems to have forgotten how. Or why.

A childless divorcee with a major talent for dealing with children. This isn’t just ‘book knowledge’ – this is an innate sense of the conversations that wander through a child’s head and the stories they tell to both reveal and conceal.

Though she has a reasonably successful private practice, the ‘meat’ of her work is with young offenders, witnesses and victims.

Shannon is quite aware that she is attractive to Petra Dimitov, a legal aid lawyer often used by Child Services. She chooses to acknowledge and ignore the situation.

Shannon has told no one is that she has a bladder obstruction and must use a catheter to wee. She hasn’t had sex in 4 years.

She also has day-mares involving a children’s song and memories she can’t quite pin down.

Petra Dimitov; early thirties, sharp, blunt, a woman who could have made it in private practice but chose to stay in-house with Child Protection. This is doubly surprising as Petra lied to get her Blue Card. She is and always has been, gay. She has had a recent split-up and is very, very covertly cruising. Her heart isn’t in it. Her attraction to Shannon is palpable but unspoken and she has more sense than to push it. Like Shannon, Petra has some major problems with Child Protection. Is she on a mission to make a difference? She could be, but her ‘delicate’ position inhibits her. Glacial or butch? Savvy or a bitch?

Alec (Lec) Straun; a lawyer with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (thankfully known as ODPP from here on). A good guy though rather burnt out. His cynicism masks a deep depression. His deep depression doesn’t stop him prosecuting cases savagely. Lec actually likes Shannon’s mind and court manoeuvres but no, there is no incipient romance here.

He is so-so happily married with kids and too burnt out to even think of an affair. Or is he? Petra’s an attractive lady…

Pat Crawley, Acting Head, Dept. of Child Services. Self- preservation is her motto, attack is her habitual defence. Not a bad woman but one who has been a public servant too long. Her skills are PR and politics, not children nor compassion. Once in a while, we’ll glimpse the enormous pressure she’s under and feel a little sympathy for her. Once in a while.

 

Caveat

Although I have undertaken extensive (Google-based!) research, some of the technical aspects of a child psychologist’s procedures and some of the legal details of this are surmise.


 

Outline, Episode One

No mother no child

Theme: child abuse and a possibly psychotic mother. Keeping secrets.

The custody battle is savage. Laurie, the mother, has an uneven psychological background that makes it likely that Rob, the father, will get custody of the two young girls.

Then Laurie drops the bombshell - the older of the two girls has been sexually abused by her ex-husband. He fights back – denying the claims and countering with accusations of her drug abuse.

Child Protection, reluctantly, put both the girls in the custody of their grandmother.

The custody case is put on hold while the various claims are investigated. Shannon is brought in to work with the two girls.

The sisters, Lea aged 5 and Rhiannon aged 7, pose an almighty problem. Sweet little things, alternatively silent and talking up a storm. These girls are experts at negotiating power. They are also, Shannon knows, expert liars.

Shannon starts by meeting with the sisters separately. This incites, in turn, tantrums and silence.

Their manipulations are a product of a feeling of powerlessness and Shannon counters this in her own way. She begins a conversation with Lea through the Sesame Street character Betty Lou – using the bizarre TV character to build a relationship with the 5 year old. Slowly, Shannon makes Betty Lou more assertive in the relationship. When the 5 year old has a well-practiced tantrum, Betty Lou gives the girl an off/on switch. She can turn Betty Lou off – kill her if you like.

Fascinated, Lea decides to let Betty Lou ‘live’. Now in control, the young girl lets down her passive/aggressive shield – but in fact has nothing much to say about her father or her mother except the usual 5 year old generalisations. Dead-end.

The older sister is a different problem. Too old for a Sesame St character, Shannon uses a laptop and a custom made interactive program that allows Rhiannon to ‘build herself’. The physical side is unsurprising – Rhiannon replaces her mousy hair with striking blonde, her bland eyes with deep blue and her cute but unprepossessing face with a dimpled Barbie mask. She calls herself ‘Noni’.

When the time comes to give the avatar a personality, Shannon is shocked when Rhiannon gives her creation a way too adult sexy persona. Assertively sexy.

Shannon has her suspicions and asks the mother to come in for a joint session with the girls. The mother’s lawyer, Simpson, reluctantly agrees to this – but insists on being present.

This is when we introduce Petra. A (purposefully) slight scene in which Shannon asks her advice on dealing with the mother’s lawyer. Petra comes over as savvy, professionally friendly and nothing more. She suggests Shannon has to carefully roll with it as Simpson’s a very cluey, aggressive guy.

The joint session seems to go smoothly – but now Shannon’s fears seem confirmed and she wants a session with the mother alone. Simpson refuses point blank – even threatening a restraining order if Shannon approaches the mother (insulting – and meant to be).

Shannon asks for a joint session with the girls and their father. The father’s lawyer, Buson, is all too happy to agree, not even stipulating that he be there.

Working late the evening before the session, Shannon receives a phone call from a stranger. The woman seems hysterical – claiming she’s going to kill herself. A ‘friend’ gave her Shannon’s number – she has to talk to her! Now! Caught between a rock and a hard place, Shannon agrees to meet the woman that night. She surprised at the venue – a bar/club that caters (very discreetly) to gay women.

Shannon waits for the ‘hysterical’ woman to show (‘I’ll be wearing a ‘Life is sexy T-shirt’.) The T-shirt doesn’t turn up - but Petra does. Shannon moves to where she can’t be seen, watches Petra chat to a woman and then leaves, not shaken but perhaps saddened to have her suspicion confirmed.

Shannon has given some creative thought to the joint session with the father. They start in a circle, doing some light association. Shannon watches the father subtly control the answers. She watches the girls say exactly what he might want them to say. She moves to Stage 2.

The girls are put on one side of the room’s partition and Shannon and the father sit on the other. All that connects them is a model railway track that goes in a circle – through a tunnel into the partitioned off area and through another tunnel back into the office.

The train is going to ‘ask’ the girls some questions.

Shannon writes ‘Where would you like to go on your holidays?’ on a card and puts it into the train’s only wagon. Choo choo! and it huffs its way into the girls’ area and stops. The silence lasts so long, Shannon asks Rhiannon to read the question out. The girl does, her voice very different from the pouty, drama queen she’s been before. She finally answers - ‘I don’t know!’ and Lea’s equally confused voice echoes her.

Rob is starting to get uncomfortable. Choo choo! The train comes back for the next question. Shannon hands him a card and pen and he hesitates before writing ‘Shall we go to the beach together?’ Shannon frowns but pushes the button to send the train through. There is muffled whispering between the girls and then a chorus of ‘Yes!’

Rob smiles in modest triumph. Shannon smiles back.

The session over, Shannon sighs and starts her report. Petra drops in to ask her how it’s going. Shannon keeps the conversation light and on-topic, then casually asks Petra if she might have ‘mightily pissed someone off’. Petra doesn’t seem to understand and Shannon shrugs – maybe her boss or – an ex-lover or something?

This hits home and Petra can’t hide it. Shannon shrugs again – always best to get these things sorted out.

Petra now knows that Shannon knows. After a very long silence, Shannon smiles – she’s not going to get involved with it – she is a child psychologist after all! It’s really Nothing To Do With Her. Now Petra knows that Shannon knows and will say nothing. Uncomfortable. Their whole relationship tilted on its head. Petra’s Blue Card could be at stake.

Petra, looking deflated, turns to leave the office. Shannon reminds her they have a coffee appointment tomorrow. Petra almost seems surprised Shannon would think of keeping it.

Shannon’s private patient, Mia. Eight years old. Bulimic. The mother is a gushy, apparently caring parent but there is an undercurrent of annoyance with her daughter, as though she was an expensive car with a mechanical problem.

Shannon explains cognitive-behavioural therapy but the mother seems uninterested in long term treatment, she wants results quickly.

Shannon speaks to the mother alone; there is no quick treatment, what’s the rush? The mother pulls out a photo – she and Mia have to be in Melbourne in two weeks for the Pageant. Shannon stares in horror at the picture the mother seems so proud of – Mia made up and pouting like a sexy model.

Shannon and Petra over their coffee, Shannon still angry. She has taken on Mia and will do her best to ensure her treatment continues after the Pageant – but it’s the mother who should be in counselling.

Shannon and Laura’s lawyer Simpson. A tense meeting. There are some things Shannon can tell Simpson and some things she can’t and he obviously wants the latter. His protectiveness of his client slips into aggressiveness and he’s surprised when Shannon shows she knows the law and won’t be jerked around.

He lays his cards on the table; Buson will do his best to paint Laurie as psychotic. His client may be – unstable – but she’s not mad. She has not rehearsed the girls in their story. Rob is a monster and a child abuser. An abuser, full stop and Laurie’s shown him the bruises to prove it.

This stops Shannon but she warns Simpson that, if there is even the smallest chance that Laurie is self-harming, her case is gone. Simpson reacts as though he has thought of this as well.

The tension between the two subsides. Shannon reminds him she’s not on the side of either parent but of the children.

Shannon begins her program of CBT with Mia, who seems responsive but obviously controlled by her mother. Shannon insists on private sessions with the girl.

Shannon and Lea and Betty Lou. Betty Lou ‘turns herself off’, telling Lea she is grown up now and doesn’t need baby toys. Lea takes this in stride, asking Shannon if she can bury Betty Lou, at the beach, with her father. When Shannon probes Lea on her desire to be with her father, the girl ‘reanimates’ Betty Lou – Betty Lou hates her mother!

Shannon and Rhiannon. Shannon doesn’t speak to Rhiannon but to her ‘mirror’, Noni. Shannon asks Noni a series of questions that circle round but focus on sex and ‘OK and not OK’ touching. The bottom line – Rhiannon is acting out anxiety at her mother’s overly-sexual behaviour, not her father’s abuse.

Shannon makes her report to Child Services. She tells Pat Crawley that the case should not go on the Magellan list (which deals with cases involving allegations of sexual abuse) as she sees no sign of physical abuse in either girl. It is Laurie, totally under her husband’s control and trying to find some hand-hold, who has very likely exhibited hyper sexual behaviour in front of the girls in order to co-opt them into ‘keeping daddy’.

Shannon’s recommendation – the girls remain in the care of their grandparents. In fact, she feels so strongly about this that she quotes the Child Protection Act.

‘Won’t wash.’ is Pat’s terse response.

Only Pat can make the application for child protection. It’s obvious she won’t.

The family court. Custody is given to the father.

We see Shannon beaten. Petra has a legal angle for Shannon to pursue but both women know it will only delay the inevitable.

Shannon gets a feverish and threatening call from Mia’s mother – the girls refuses to go to Melbourne! It’s all Shannon’s fault! She’s fired! Shannon punches the air in triumph.

In an ironic case of bad coincidence, Simpson (the mother’s lawyer) makes an unscheduled visit to Shannon while she and Petra are going over a new case.

It’s obvious he’s come to chat Shannon up.

While the three make uncomfortable small-talk, Shannon takes a call. The woman who was going to kill herself - Petra’s vengeful ex. The woman makes threats that range from ‘Going to A Current Affair’ to somehow implicating Shannon and Petra in a lesbian paedophile ring. Shannon listens with great restraint, finally cutting in gently to tell the caller that she’s talking to the wrong person.

Shannon covers the mouthpiece and smiles at Petra – ‘For you, you might like to take it in reception.’

With Petra gone, Shannon turns to Simpson with a smile,

‘Let’s not start something we might regret.’

 

Further Episodes

Munchausen’s little secret

Sick mother/sick child. Munchausen-by-proxy is an interesting syndrome, characterised by care-givers (and this includes parents) deliberately exaggerating and/or inducing physical, psychological, behavioural, and/or mental health problems in others.

When 12 year old Susan’s mother brings a lawsuit against a food conglomerate for ‘concealing the real ingredients of their ’Happy Morning Breakfast Cereal’ and thus causing irreparable harm via an allergic reaction, Shannon is brought in to determine the girl’s fitness to testify.

Pressure – from a very determined mother and a corporation with endless resources to fight the court case.

I seeeee you!

A child witness to murder – but did he see what he saw?

How do you protect a child from the possible psychological damage of re-enacting a traumatic experience? How do you sort through the scrambled remembrance of an eight year old?

‘Sand therapy’ is an unconventional and risky approach – but Shannon chances it – with mixed and surprising results. But will the court accept her findings?

Gangbusters

A young boy with a record of stealing cars – but who is he stealing them for?

He started when he was hardly tall enough to reach the pedals – and he’s ‘jacked’ 12 cars by the time he’s 14.

This last one has got him into very hot water. He crashed the car at an intersection. A young mother was injured. Why was he speeding? Who was he running from? And where was the car going? Shannon has bitten off almost more than she can chew but she’s determined to find out who’s pulling the boy’s strings.

Animal Crackers

Animal abuse, traumatised child, violent father, submissive mother – is there a villain here?

Children who abuse animals often go on to display violence against people. But it doesn’t have to be so – if you can get the child away from the pressure that’s made him (or her) a torturer. The court is hearing a child misdemeanour case, not a custody case – but Shannon’s determined to change this. Can she and Petra beat the system?

Chain of Command

The bully was bullied. Humans will always take out their powerlessness on someone lower down the chain. Cyber bullying hurts.,

Mobile phone footage of Josh bashing Alex goes viral online. For Alex’s mum, it’s the final straw. She lawyers up and sues the school. Her lawyer brings in Shannon to determine the level of emotional harm done to Alex. When the case against the school flounders, the mother goes after Josh’s parents.

Then a strange thing happens – mobile footage of Josh bursting into tears goes online and suddenly Josh is the target of horrendous cyber bullying.

Shannon is made facilitator of a counselling session between all parties and the dirty little secrets start to come out.

 

Comfort Dog

A child traumatised into speechlessness, a desperate need to get into her mind. A kidnap, a dead-end – and an ugly dog to save the day.