Department of Child Safety Can Interview Kids Without Parental Consent, Arizona AG Says

Does the Arizona Department of Child Safety need parental permission to interview children during an investigation into alleged neglect? According to a new opinion authored by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, the answer is no.

It’s always been understood that the DCS doesn’t need parental permission to conduct an interview with a child if the child initiated contact with the department or is the alleged victim, sibling of the alleged victim, or lives in a home with the alleged victim.

The AG’s office was asked to look into the issue to determine whether the rules are different for situations involving neglect because the relevant statutes only refer to “abuse and abandonment” situations.

This question, which may seem nit-picky but actually is very important to the DCS' investigation process, came up after a woman filed a complaint with the state Ombudsman's Office because she believed “the department unlawfully interviewed her children” about an alleged neglect case “without obtaining her permission.”

According to the Ombudsman’s report, the woman said “an employee of the Department pulled her children out of class while they were at school in order to interview them about a matter concerning her brother’s children” — the woman’s children lived in the same home as their cousins, the alleged victims, the Arizona Republic reported earlier this year.  

The Ombudsman reviewed the situation and ended up siding with the woman. The report concluded that because the specific wording of the statutes only include the words “abuse” and “abandonment,” the DCS needs parental permission to interview a child about a report of neglect.

The report was widely seen as a major blow to the DCS because the agency suddenly was accused of violating the law, and because obtaining parental permission for an interview could potentially taint or hinder any future investigations — 70 percent of the cases DCS investigates concern neglect.
DCS Director Greg McKay immediately put out a statement saying he disagreed with the conclusion and would ask the AG’s office to review the situation – opinions authored by the AG supersede those of the Ombudsman’s office. 

In McKay’s letter to Brnovich, he explained that even though there’s never been an explicit opinion or court decision about protocol in neglect cases, DCS always has interpreted the state’s interview laws to mean the agency could “interview a child without prior parental consent in any case being investigated …whether it is characterized as abuse, neglect, or abandonment.”

What’s more, McKay explained, it makes little sense to have rules for abuse and abandonment that are different than those regulating neglect because the DCS actually categorizes abandonment as a form of neglect.

It makes little sense to have rules for abuse and abandonment that are different than those regulating neglect because the DCS actually categorizes abandonment as a form of neglect, DCS Director Greg McKay says.

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Bottom line, he argued, DCS’ ability to fulfill its statutory duties “to protect children” could be compromised if it’s forced to obtain parental permission for an interview because parents could “coach” their children to give the investigators certain answers.

After reviewing all of the statutes, Brnovich sided with McKay and the DCS, meaning his decision reverses the conclusion put forward last month by the state Ombudsman and represents a major win for DCS.

A spokesman for the DCS declined to comment on the decision and said the department would release an official statement sometime today; we’ll update this post after the statement is released.

Read Brnovich's full opinion:
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser