Arizona Republic: Blacklisted for playing at the park? Arizona’s child neglect agency goes too far

August 09, 2022 | By ADI DYNAR, TIM SANDEFUR
empty swings on playground optimized

It was Thanksgiving of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a Tucson mom named Sarra headed to her grocery store to pick up a turkey. She’d brought her 7-year-old son and his 5-year-old friend along for the ride.

But the store was asking people to stay outside to slow the spread of COVID-19, unless they were shopping. So Sarra dropped the boys off at a park a few blocks away to play while she shopped. She knew it was safe; she’s lived in Tucson for decades and she saw some of her friends in the park who could help her son and his friend if anything happened.

Then came the phone call that changed her life.

DCS accused Sarra of child neglect

It was one of her friends from the park. The boys weren’t hurt – they were fine – but two police officers were asking them questions, and the friend thought she’d better come back.

When she did, the cops turned on her: she was endangering the children, they said, by letting them play by themselves. Any minor under 18 must be supervised by an adult at all times, they added, though that is not true.

And despite the fact that the kids were unharmed – they’d simply been enjoying themselves – Sarra was charged with a crime.

County prosecutors later dropped the charges. Yet officials with the state’s Department of Child Safety (DCS) weren’t satisfied. They began accusing Sarra of child neglect, which Arizona law defines as “the inability or unwillingness of a parent … to provide [a] child with supervision … if that inability or unwillingness causes unreasonable risk of harm.”

Agency can add names without proof of wrongdoing

That’s nonsense. Sarra is a responsible mother who is not unwilling to supervise her kids. She simply rejects the idea of “helicopter parenting.”

“Children need to take risks and be trusted to be healthy,” she says. “My son is a fairly precocious and intelligent young individual, and he felt comfortable playing with his friend at a park for that brief period of time. He was not going to run out into the street. … He was prepared with a plan for safety, and he felt comfortable and proud being able to be there.”

Nevertheless, DCS insisted on adding Sarra’s name to its Central Registry – a confidential statewide list of people accused of harming kids. The registry is essentially a “do not hire” list because someone on the list cannot be hired or even volunteer for work with any state-certified organization involving children or vulnerable adults.

And incredibly enough, DCS can put people on the list without proving they did anything wrong.

Sarra is challenging the Central Registry

For Sarra – who for years has volunteered to help refugee children in her community – being listed in the registry is devastating. Earlier this month, she filed an appeal, arguing that the registry law is unconstitutional.

That law lets unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats blacklist people like Sarra based on what lawyers call “probable cause.” “Probable cause” is far less evidence than the “reasonable doubt” standard required to convict someone of a crime. It’s even less than the “preponderance of evidence” standard that governs civil lawsuits.

In fact, Arizona courts have said “probable cause” is a kind of suspicion – it means the government thinks it’s possible the person did something wrong.

Worse, a person’s name can be put on the registry without a trial through an “administrative” hearing. This type of hearing doesn’t follow the rules of evidence that apply to courtrooms, and it’s presided over by a hearing officer, not a judge.

This op-ed was originally published in the Arizona Republic on August 9, 2022.