Sarra L.* was in shock when she received a call from a friend one November afternoon, informing her that her 7-year-old son and a friend were being detained by the police at their neighborhood park.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Sarra had let the kids play at the park while she ran to the store to grab the turkey. She knew the park well and with her friend teaching a Tai Chi class at the playground, she had no reason to think there were any serious concerns with leaving the children for a few minutes.
It never crossed her mind that this innocuous decision would result in her name being placed on the Arizona Central Registry—a “no-hire” list that prevents employers from allowing registrants to have contact with children.
It was a warm fall day in 2020, the kind Arizonans are fortunate to experience while much of the country is already donning their winter coats and scarfs. Sarra wanted to give her son and his friend the opportunity to play outside as an escape from the remote learning that kept students cooped up in their houses all day long. Still in the peak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it also made sense to spare the children a trip to a crowded grocery store.
The park had a positive reputation of being safe and filled with familiar faces, making it all the more confusing that she found herself standing in front of two police officers, chastising her for putting the children in danger.
Sarra’s mind reeled as she tried to make sense of what was going on while the officers asked how she could possibly leave the children alone when they could have stepped on a syringe or been harmed by a stranger.
This wasn’t some park in the middle of San Francisco with a booming homeless population and rising crime rate. This was a park in a quiet residential neighborhood. There was no evidence that the kids were in any real danger, but the officers were pulling out all the stops to paint Sarra as a neglectful guardian who put children in harm’s way.
After enduring the condescending lecture on proper parenting, she was charged with two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which carried up to six months of jailtime.
When the case got to the county prosecutors, they found no substantial evidence that the children’s safety was in question and dropped the charges. That should have been the end of the matter, but the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) wouldn’t let it go.
DCS conducted their own investigation and ultimately concluded that Sarra put the children “at unreasonable risk of harm for abduction, injury, harm from a stranger, exposure to drugs and death,” an outrageous assertion that came with horrendous consequences.
The department recommended that her name be added to the Central Registry, which documents child abuse and neglect matters. Once your name makes it on the list, you stay on it for 25 years.
Stories of parents being punished and even arrested for letting their children exert their independence have riddled the news over the past several years.
A few years ago, a South Carolina mom was arrested for letting her daughter play at a nearby park while she worked at McDonald’s. As a single mother struggling to get by, paying for childcare was not an option. She felt guilty making her daughter sit at the restaurant with only her iPad to entertain her while she worked, so she made what she thought was the best decision for her daughter, but that decision resulted in the state taking custody of the child.
Likewise, a Mississippi mother had the police called on her after she let her son walk home from soccer practice, which was only half a mile away from the family’s front door. This low-risk opportunity for her son to get a taste of independence ended in the mother being threatened with a child endangerment charge.
And then there is Lenore Skenazy, who was dubbed “America’s worst mom” after she let her son take the subway home in New York City. Her son had begged for months to ride the subway alone. Lenore assessed the situation and gave him a MetroCard, some money, and a way to call her if needed. But outrage soon followed.
This outrage, however, sparked a movement of parents fighting for their right to dictate what they feel is best for their children and their need for independence.
Prohibiting children from engaging in low-risk, independence-building activities is bad enough on its own. But criminalizing these parents and burdening them with long-term legal consequences is especially disturbing, as Sarra’s case shows. Worse still, it’s also unconstitutional.
Our legal system is based on the idea that every individual is innocent until proven guilty. The Constitution’s guarantee of due process promises each person the right to a neutral adjudicator, fair proceedings, and meaningful judicial review.
Sarra’s right to due process was completely ignored when Arizona DCS took it upon themselves to play the role of judge and jury, making the decision to add her name to the Central Registry.
Sarra’s only day in court took place in the Office of Administrative Hearings, where DCS only needed to prove that they had “probable” cause to make their recommendation.
In our justice system, the burden of proof is an important protection for the accused. When someone is accused of a crime, the government is tasked with proving to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty of the crime of which they are accused. In a non-criminal case, the government must prove a lower standard called “preponderance of the evidence” that the person acted wrongfully.
The Office of Administrative Hearings adhered to a much lower bar. And while DCS claimed that Sarra was guilty of “neglect,” their interpretation did not even meet the criteria set forth in Arizona state law.
With her name now on the list of child abusers for the next 25 years, she was forbidden from working with children in any capacity. Not only was her personal reputation tarnished and her faith in the legal system shaken, but her long-term charity work was now also in jeopardy.
Sarra grew up in a religious household where her parents placed a great deal of emphasis on helping those in need. Working with refugees was a long-held tradition for the family. Sarra’s mother had spent her youth surrounded by WWII refugees, and during Sarra’s upbringing, her childhood home was filled with refugees from Central America.
The experience living with people from other cultures taught her a great deal about the world and exposed her to a host of languages, of which she now speaks several.
Now a parent herself, she has continued the tradition and works closely with African and Venezuelan refugees.
Seeking refuge in a new country is a stressful ordeal, and Sarra loves being able to open her home and provide some much-needed relief. She also takes pride in knowing that her son will get to experience the same unique upbringing that had made her childhood so special.
To leave one’s own country behind creates a great deal of devastation that is made worse when you arrive in a new country and do not speak the language. Many refugees spend their early days in America lonely and isolated from the surrounding communities.
Sarra remembers meeting a French-speaking Congolese refugee while visiting her mother. The woman was so overjoyed and thankful to learn that Sarra spoke French. The two were able to form a close relationship that helped her new friend feel less lonely while she rebuilt her life.
In her own community, Sarra has been able to offer support to single mothers. On the day of the park incident, Sarra had been helping one of these mothers who needed someone to watch her son while she went to work. Without hesitation, Sarra stepped up to the plate and picked up the child before finishing her Thanksgiving errands.
What transpired that day was not only an egregious attack on her rights as a parent, but it also made Sarra unable to provide support to refugee families.
Sarra’s primary focus is helping families with their children. Because landing on the registry prohibits employers from allowing her to have contact with any children aside from her son, she is now unable to continue the work on which so many families rely.
When the other boy’s mother came to pick up her son, she was aghast. She didn’t speak any English, and with tears in her eyes, Sarra had to translate to the police on her behalf as the mother told them that Sarra was the only person in this country who genuinely cared about her family.
Sarra has dedicated her entire life to helping others, but now her work has had to come to a halt. No good deed, as they say, goes unpunished.
All is not lost for Sarra.
While the experience has left a bitter taste in her mouth, Sarra is grateful to have someone in her corner, which she says has helped lift the dark clouds she has been living under.
The legal battle is far from over, but she was granted a welcome reprieve. The court ordered her name removed from the registry until the legal battle is resolved.
Every individual has the right to due process when they are accused of a crime, and no parent should have to live in fear of being prosecuted and punished for making their own parenting decisions.
*Sarra’s last name has been redacted according to court rules.