Grocery shopping around the holidays during normal times can be challenging. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving 2020, the raging pandemic added to the stress as stores had rules to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The Tucson, Arizona, grocery store where Sarra L. shopped was no exception, asking that only adult shoppers enter the store.
So, when Sarra needed to pick up some pre-holiday groceries, she dropped off her seven-year-old son and his five-year-old friend at a park about five blocks from the store. As someone who has long worked with refugee children, Sarra is naturally safety-conscious and knew the park was safe. She grew up in the neighborhood and even played alone in the same park when she was a child. Plus, a friend was teaching a Tai Chi class at the park and was watching the kids while Sarra went to buy groceries.
While at the store, Sarra’s phone rang and her life changed in an instant. The Tai Chi teacher called to tell Sarra that police were talking to the kids. She rushed back to the park only to be told that leaving her son there was a crime. She was charged with two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Each charge carried up to six months of jail time.
Because the kids were never in any danger, the county prosecutors dropped the charges after Sarra agreed to attend a life-skills class. Despite having her name cleared by the criminal justice system, her legal problems were far from over.
The Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) conducted a separate investigation. The DCS concluded Sarra placed her son “at unreasonable risk of harm for abduction, injury, harm from a stranger, exposure to drugs and death.” In other words, they labeled her a neglectful parent and recommended her name be placed in the Arizona Central Registry—for 25 years.
The Central Registry is similar to a sex offender registry. Accessible to employers, law enforcement, and child protection workers, among others, people in the list are prohibited from having any contact with children. Sarra would have to stop working with children and suffer devastating reputational harm and the stigma that goes with it.
Sarra demanded a trial, which, in Arizona, takes place before an administrative law judge (ALJ) from the Office of Administrative Hearings. The ALJ heard Sarra’s case in March 2022 and found probable cause to conclude that Sarra committed child neglect, ordering that her name be entered in the Central Registry.
In our justice system, the burden of proof is an important protection for the accused. When someone is accused of a crime, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that the person committed the crime in question. In a non-criminal case, the government must prove a lower standard, called “preponderance of the evidence,” that the person acted wrongfully. But in this case, all DCS had to do was convince an ALJ they had “probable cause”—basically just suspicion—to believe Sarra had violated their rules. What Sarra did doesn’t even come close to the legal definition of neglect that’s on the books in Arizona, yet her rights were far less protected in an agency’s civil proceeding than they’d be in a criminal case.
The Arizona Constitution does not give agencies power to act as prosecutor, judge, and jury to punish citizens under cover of vague child neglect laws. Nor does Arizona statute, which forbids courts from deferring to agencies’ interpretations of law.
With a quarter-century ban on the work that she loves and her due process rights on the line, Sarra fought back. Represented by Pacific Legal Foundation and the Goldwater Institute, Sarra asked a state court to restore due process protections in administrative hearings and hold government agencies and bureaucrats accountable for their mistreatment of citizens.
In August 2022, Sarra won a stay of agency action where the court ordered the Department to remove her name from the Central Registry until the case was resolved. In 2023, DCS decided to make that stay permanent. It revoked the finding of neglect against Sarra. As a result, the court dismissed the case based on the department’s withdrawal of Sarra’s entry from the Central Registry. The court did not decide whether DCS’ administrative adjudication scheme is unconstitutional. For more information on this case, read the Goldwater Institute’s Litigation Backgrounder.