Mom celebrates victory after state drops bogus child neglect charge—but other parents are still at risk

August 11, 2023 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
mother and child

An Arizona mother unjustly accused of child neglect has reason to celebrate, after a trial judge allowed the state’s Department of Child Safety to drop their charges against her. 

In 2021, Pacific Legal Foundation client Sarra L* was unjustly accused of child neglect after she let her son play alone at a safe neighborhood park while she made a quick trip to the grocery store. A friend of Sarra’s had been doing tai chi in the same park where Sarra’s son played and there was no sign of danger. But someone called the police, which resulted in the Arizona Department of Child Safety taking action against her. They even placed her name on the state’s “Central Registry,” which blacklisted her from working and volunteering with children for 25 years. 

Not only were the charges of neglect absurd, but Sarra had a long history of working with children. Thanks to the Central Registry, she would no longer be able to continue the work she loved. 

Worse still, as it currently stands, the Department of Child Safety’s practices are unconstitutional, as they violate an individual’s right to due process. 

As Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur explains: 

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. 

Goldwater Institute and Pacific Legal Foundation teamed up and helped Sarra fight back against the state’s ridiculous action against Sarra. The department ultimately asked the trial judge to dismiss the case. In June, that request was granted. 

Speaking to the victory, PLF attorney Adi Dynar said: 

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. 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 is a great news for Sarra, but in the broader sense, the win is bittersweet. Without the case ever going to trial, others still risk being placed on the state’s unconstitutional Central Registry. 

And the problem extends far beyond Arizona. 

Unfortunately, there are many states where child welfare departments bypass constitutional due process rights and arbitrarily punish parents on mere suspicion alone. One of the more heart-wrenching stories comes from Massachusetts, where PLF is representing clients whose children were ripped from their home. 

Taken in the middle of the night

Like any good parents, Sarah Perkins rushed her infant son, Cal, to the hospital when she discovered his fever had reached 103 degrees. Her husband, Josh Sabey, waited at home with their other son, 3-year-old Clarence. 

Dealing with a sick and inconsolable child in the middle of the night is hard on any parent. But the family had no idea that this hospital visit was about to turn into a nightmare that would result in losing custody of their two sons. 

While running tests on the baby, doctors found a healed rib fracture. Neither parent had any idea that Cal had sustained this injury. But the hospital proceeded to treat the couple like criminals. A social worker was sent in the room and proceeded to interrogate Sarah and insinuate that either she or her husband had abused the infant. A police officer was placed outside the hospital room door to ensure that Sarah couldn’t leave. 

Finally, after hours had gone by, Sarah and Cal were allowed to leave the hospital, but the ordeal was far from over. 

A day later, in the middle of the night, social workers, aided by police officers, came to the family’s home unannounced and took their sons away. Four weeks would pass before the children would be allowed to return home to their parents. 

In both Sarra’s case and the Sabeys’ case, the government ignored the fundamental right to due process—and innocent children and parents suffered. Far from ensuring child safety, these agencies have turned into child snatchers. The government is not allowed to take shortcuts, especially when it comes to something as serious as parental rights. Further safeguards need to be in place to ensure compelling evidence is presented before children are taken from their families—that is why the right to due process exists in the first place. 

Josh and Sarah were lucky to eventually be reunited with their children. But other families, especially those without resources, are not so lucky. The family could have just let it go and moved on, but they feel very strongly that they have a responsibility to make sure what happened to them isn’t allowed to happen to any other parent in Massachusetts.   

Pacific Legal Foundation is representing Josh and Sarah in their fight to protect their constitutional rights. 

To learn more about Josh and Sarah’s heartbreaking story, watch Pacific Legal Foundation’s new documentary, 72 Hours.