There's No Saving This Date
Yeah yeah, 'it's not a date.' Whatever it is, maybe-future-Lieutenant Benson and Deputy Chief Eyebrows have to put it on hold when a child-welfare case blows up.
Bruno, a reticent three-year-old, manages to unlock his front door, wander out of his building in the projects, and buy some off-brand Sno-Balls before a deli clerk realizes what's up and calls the cops. Bruno's mom is AWOL -- probably on a drug binge, per her neighbors -- and he's underfed and dirty.
In the course of trying to track down Manuela Ozuna, his mother, Carisi, Liv, and the family's caseworker Keith enter a stifling apartment to find another child, Keisha, confined to a dog crate and on the brink of death. She's nearly nine but is the malnourished size of a younger child, and dies at the hospital.
Manuela's facing a homicide charge. Unimpressed by her self-pitying "Bruno's baby-daddy disciplined Keisha, not me, and then he got shot last month and I lost it" monologue, Liv and Barba decide the whole system's out of order and go after DCS, specifically Keith. Keith is properly horrified by his part in Keisha's demise, and reveals that his boss Janette and her boss, the deputy commissioner of Children's Services, made him skip appointments and falsify dozens of case reports. On the stand, Janette has a meltdown and rants that DCS is completely overwhelmed and only now does anyone care, and blame her.
Janette ends up in Bellevue, but will plead to manslaughter. Her boss gets a year. Keith is, I think, stuck with a criminally-negligent homicide bid. Liv's hair gets paroled from butt-cut jail.
...Amirite? Same cut, HUGE improvement.
Pierce was 4, not 8, and was drugged as well as starved; Bell was accused of failing to oversee Adams's work, versus advising him not to do it/hounding him to falsify records. Otherwise, very close.
Whoopi Goldberg as Janette; OITNB's Jessica Pimentel as Manuela.
This isn't Goldberg's first turn as a "system" baddie; she played a Ma-Barker foster mom on CI in 2006. Peter Gallagher is back as Dodds, and Scott William Winters gets a mortgage payment out of playing the responding detective (here, "Joe Dumas," so he's not Dean Winters's character's brother). Josh Pais reappears as the top cop's PR flack.
Barba's review of case files Janette backdated, excluding horrors like children burnt with cigarettes and forced to drink bleach, is rough.
Ordered by 1PP to back off, the squad has to hold onto Barba's coattail as he does the end run around the police commissioner's office. Meanwhile, Rollins -- who has gotten markedly larger since last we saw her --
is still trying to work cases as usual, though she's discouraged from going into the field by Liv...and, when Dodds catches sight of her, formally confined to her desk. (Mazel alert: Giddish just had her son a couple days ago. Crackpot alert: I think she's maybe wearing a pregnancy pad in this ep in order to line up the timeline better with her own pregnancy and the shooting schedule. Discuss) Dodds also makes sure SVU's refusal to drop the case doesn't hang up Liv's promotion to lieutenant by installing a sergeant under her that 1PP can trust, namely his own kid. Relatively low levels of egregion by SVU standards, though.
Liv and Rollins, because moms; everyone else, because they're human, although I do think Liv's quavery "Where the hell are the parents?" is a bit fragile for a sergeant after seventeen seasons on the unit. Carisi in particular goes white when they find Keisha.
He snarls at Manuela to shut up while he's arresting her, and gets a nice "well, I tried" armflap when Liv tells Rollins to stay at the precinct and search records instead of doing literal legwork.
Honorable mention to Barba's "I'm gonna need more than maternal outrage to make a case." And to this face, a woodcut of which should go in the dictionary next to "...chrissakes."
We first see Liv and Dodds looking preeeeetty cozy coming out of a work-schmooze function; when Fin says he's sorry to interrupt their date, they say in unison, too quickly, "It's not a date."