Victory for falsely accused Tucson mom over DCS bureaucrats

June 28, 2023 | By TIMOTHY SANDEFUR
mother and child

This post was originally published on the Goldwater Institute’s blog. The author, Timothy Sandefur, is Vice President for Legal Affairs at Goldwater. He was previously an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation.

A Tucson mother falsely accused of child neglect for letting her 7-year-old son play by himself in their neighborhood park was vindicated when a trial judge allowed the Arizona Department of Child Services to drop its lawsuit against her.

The Goldwater Institute and Pacific Legal Foundation teamed up to defend the woman (referred to as “Sarra L.” in court documents) after the department put her name on its “Central Registry”—essentially a blacklist that forbids a person from working or even volunteering with children or vulnerable adults for 25 years. Citing a change in department leadership, state bureaucrats asked a trial judge to dismiss its lawsuit against Sarra L., and the judge agreed in a written opinion issued last week. It’s a victory for Sarra, and for common sense.

Unfortunately, the state’s withdrawal of its charges against Sarra leaves Arizona’s arbitrary and unconstitutional Central Registry system in place, meaning that there’s nothing to stop the same thing from happening to other parents in the future.

Those laws allow the department to put a person’s name on the Central Registry based on “probable cause”—a legal term that basically means suspicion that a person might have done something wrong. That “probable cause” standard is such a low bar that state and federal courts around the country have already declared it unconstitutional to put someone’s name on a “do-not-hire” list based on it. But Arizona officials haven’t got the message.

The department put Sarra’s name on the registry after she let her son play on her local playground while she went to the grocery store to pick up a Thanksgiving turkey in 2020. Although her son was never in danger, and no harm came to him, police officers arrived soon she dropped him off. And when Sarra returned twenty minutes later, she was accused of neglecting her son by an officer who claimed that it’s illegal to let any child under 18 play without adult supervision ever. (It’s not.) Pima County prosecutors declined to pursue any charges. Yet the Department of Child Services insisted on putting Sarra on the blacklist anyway. That’s not surprising: Sarra is just one of thousands of people whose names the department has put on its blacklist. Although the exact number is unknown, an Arizona Republic story in 2018 found that there at least 81,000 people were listed in the Central Registry, and it’s likely that many of them don’t even know their names are on it.

Represented by Goldwater and PLF, Sarra appealed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, arguing that the department’s actions violated the state and federal constitutions. After briefing was completed, however, the department’s lawyers sought to withdraw its accusations—while insisting at the same time that it was not admitting to having done anything wrong. Although we argued that the department was merely trying to escape a decision on the constitutionality of its actions—something that is not usually allowed—the Superior Court judge agreed to let the department abandon the lawsuit.

“Today’s news is a win for courageous parents like Sarra L. who are brave enough to stand up to the Department of Child Safety’s abusive practices,” says PLF Attorney Adi Dynar, who joined me in defending Sarra’s due process rights. “Because Sarra was brave enough to fight the department, it backed down from its persecution of Sarra for allowing her son to play in a safe public park. We are pleased to see a rising chorus of parents like Sarra who are not afraid to stand up for their rights and fight the bloated and unconstitutional giant that is the Department of Child Safety.”

This case should never have been brought to begin with, and it’s a perfect example of the type of bureaucratic overreach that so often deprives parents of their constitutional rights. The “probable cause” rule in Arizona law is clearly unconstitutional, which is probably one reason the department was so eager to get out of the case more than two years after wrongly accusing Sarra of breaking the law. Yet Arizona’s unconstitutional Central Registry remains in place. It’s past time for Arizona to fix its unduly intrusive laws and respect the constitutional rights of Arizona parents.

Read more about the case, Sarra L. v. Faust.