Beaten by the System

Mom of battered child receives false sense of security from county sheriff's office

Donna Van Dyke never imagined accusing her boyfriend of beating her baby.

She never conceived of having to seek a court order to remove him from the Mesa apartment they shared.

And she never thought that the last place she should turn for help would be the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Donna Van Dyke and her daughter, Brenna, back at home in their Mesa apartment.
Kevin Scanlon
Donna Van Dyke and her daughter, Brenna, back at home in their Mesa apartment.

But what Van Dyke, 31, learned during the past three weeks is that the sheriff's office doesn't read the protection orders or consider the circumstances when deciding which ones to deliver first. She learned that deputies are required to leave a business card with a pager number in hopes that the person being served a protection order will kindly give them a call to arrange a meeting.

And that, even in a case where a single mother has fled with a 20-month-old baby in tow, if a deputy is unsuccessful on three occasions in finding the person, the protection order does not get served.

None of this was told to Van Dyke, an administrative supervisor for a Mesa medical clinic, when she arrived June 4 at Maricopa County Superior Court.

All she knew was she needed help. Someone had hurt her daughter, Brenna Sanborn, whose infectious smile and chocolate brown eyes could melt glaciers. Van Dyke alleges that the person who struck her child was her boyfriend, and that he hit Brenna hard enough to leave a large bruise across the girl's buttocks and thighs.

Van Dyke received a protection order granting her exclusive use of the apartment.

She gave the paperwork to the sheriff's office and was told deputies would deliver it. She was asked the best time to find her boyfriend at home. She was assured the matter would be resolved.

Then the hours, and days, began to pass.

What Van Dyke didn't know was that she could have gone to any law enforcement agency and requested that the protection order be served. She says she was told she had two options: either use a private process server, which she could not afford, or the sheriff's office.

There are 22 deputy sheriffs assigned to serve civil process, and they receive about 140 protection orders a month, nearly all of them granting one party exclusive use of a shared residence. The deputies work Monday through Friday, serving papers between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. If they are unsuccessful on one attempt, they typically wait a day or two before returning.

"I'm concerned the advice she got was to go to the sheriff's [office]. I do not give that advice," says Quentin V. Tolby, a justice of the peace in Glendale. "They take quite a bit of extra time serving papers. They might have more business than they have the people to take care of, I don't know."

Tolby, the city's former mayor, tells people in his courtroom to go to the police. He dispenses a handout with safety tips because such situations can erupt into violence.

"If you call 911 and say, 'This guy has beat my child and I have an order,' they're going to take it as priority," Tolby says. "A private process server is not going to tell the guy to leave. He's just going to hand the papers and say, 'You've been served.'"

Van Dyke left her apartment in a hurry once she found her daughter's bruised backside. She went to her sister's house in north Phoenix, even though her job, as well as Brenna's day-care provider, was in Mesa. All she had were the few belongings stuffed in an overnight bag. She needed her home and her baby's bed.

After two days, on Wednesday, June 6, Van Dyke could wait no longer. There had been no word from the sheriff's office. A friend recommended Van Dyke go to the Mesa police and have them serve the papers. She called, officers arrived and her boyfriend left. Van Dyke changed the locks, back at home.

Once inside, she found a business card from a sheriff's deputy. Printed on the back of the card was this message: "Please page me concerning court papers."

It was the first of two business cards to be left at her apartment.

The second one arrived five days after her protection order had been served. Van Dyke came home from work June 11 to find the second card stuck inside her apartment door. It had a different deputy's name, but the same message on the back -- a pager number and a request for a phone call.

Apparently, no one informed the sheriff's office her situation had been resolved, which should have happened, according to sheriff's Sergeant Dave Trombi, a spokesman for the agency.

Van Dyke realized that, had she not been told to call the local police, the protection order might not have been served, that she might still be without a home.

"I don't think that they find this to be very high on their list of priorities," she says. "Why do they offer the service if they're not going to do it? As far as I'm concerned, that's not an effort."

According to Trombi, that's the best that anyone can expect.

Trombi says the fact that protection orders are civil documents, not criminal, limits what lengths deputies can go to serve the paperwork. They cannot, for example, use force to deliver a court document.

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