Mother, interrupted: CPS accused her of everything from neglect to excessive care, never proved anything, and took her daughter anyway

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The voluminous records in this case speak for themselves, and what they say is that CPS violated its own policies every step of the way:

• The agency never interviewed all Sarah's doctors and therapists from birth, and no one from the state interviewed Dunlavy until the middle of January, three months after Sarah had been taken.

• No one ever interviewed Dunlavy's family and friends, although that's required, too.

• CPS also dragged its heels on getting access to Sarah's medical records; it took the agency two months to get them.

• CPS never consulted a Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy expert. According to the agency's policy, an expert must be included in all critical decisions in the case, including the initial accusation and the removal of the child, and must be able to review the child's medical records from birth.

Phoenix Children's Hospital has some questions to answer, too. Although the hospital's final report on Sarah stated no feeding problems were ever observed in the child during her stay there (which would have been a key indication that Dunlavy was fabricating symptoms), the medical record states otherwise — time after time — in notes taken by PCH doctors and nurses. And while the medical records clearly show that Dunlavy repeatedly refused to allow a surgically placed feeding tube, PCH said she wanted it — another damning sign.

Then there's the court system. Dunlavy never received a hearing in the matter, and she still lost her parental rights.

Attorney Jennifer Morse was shocked. She was even more surprised that the court never called out CPS and Lowe, the assistant AG on the case. (Lowe passed the Bar exam in 2005; part of the problem, Morse guesses, is a lack of experience.) In any case, Morse worries the case sets a precedent for CPS' intervention in basic decisions that parents have a right to make about their kids.

"It's very subjective, how a parent views their child. For a new parent, a child with a 104-degree fever might be dying. For someone with a couple kids, they're not worried," she says. "Neither is better than the other."

But in this case, the state issued orders against a mother because of the medical decisions she made for her daughter. And it did so without the full story.

"The consequences for CPS are really dire," Morse adds. "The idea that CPS can go in and decide which parent they like better, it's really scary."

Carol Dunlavy was a young divorcée from Glasgow, Scotland — sweet-natured, with pretty blond hair and big, blue eyes — when she met the man who would eventually be Sarah's father.

The two met in the Valley. Dunlavy had moved here with her first husband. She was immediately impressed by her new boyfriend's upbringing and what she saw as his high-status career as a veterinary surgeon.

Dunlavy comes from a blue-collar, suburban family. Her dad is an engineer and her mom is a secretary. Worried this guy wouldn't be impressed by her job in customer service and her humble upbringing, Dunlavy lied. Though she never completed college, she told him she was a child psychologist. He seemed impressed. After the words were out of her mouth, Dunlavy thought they sounded pretty good — she continued to tell the lie to new people she met for the next four years.

"It was to impress him because he was of a higher social standing than I was. I didn't know it would play into anything later," she says now. "It did make me feel better about myself. I felt important and respected more."

They dated for two years. Then Dunlavy discovered she was pregnant. Her boyfriend was not happy, and they broke up. He agreed to provide her with a house, a car, and money to support the child while she was on maternity leave. He considered moving into the spare bedroom at the house to help her.

But after Sarah was born in July 2005, Dunlavy's life became more difficult. The father didn't move in to help out. Dunlavy's job was outsourced while she was on maternity leave. Sarah had colic and later, Dunlavy would learn, acid reflux — she cried and vomited all the time. And Dunlavy's family was a world away. The new mother was overwhelmed. On one occasion, frightened by two hours of nonstop crying by her 2-month-old daughter, Dunlavy took her to the emergency room.

Sarah was fine — just colicky and constipated — but Dunlavy needed someone to tell her so.

After the ER trip, there weren't many more visits to the doctor, outside of vaccinations and the occasional call for advice. Dunlavy joined three parenting groups and enrolled Sarah in all kinds of classes: swimming, music, Little Gym.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin