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

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Notes indicate Sarah was just as disinterested in eating with her dad as she was with her mom: "Secondary to dad's surprise arrival, patient lost all interest in food . . . as soon as patient saw cafeteria she started crying and said, 'No, no!' Sat on dad's lap and took one bite of grilled cheese. Patient was not interested in food.

But the final nail in Dunlavy's coffin was her big lie. For most of the time Sarah was in the hospital, the staff thought her mother was a child psychologist. To them, this meant she had the medical knowledge to fake an illness — a classic MSBP sign. Later, after the father was involved, he told them the child psychologist line was a lie. Lying or exaggeration are also MSBP red flags, and it made her look terrible in the hospital staff's eyes. Geyer reported there were concerns about her "deliberately deceitful" behavior.

Dunlavy never thought it would go so far.

"The only thing I ever said to the doctors that was not true was that I had a degree. I have self-esteem issues; I think that's pretty obvious. But I don't feel in my heart that because of what I told [her father] I deserve to lose my daughter," she says. "She was completely separate from that. It was 4 1/2 years before she was even born."

On the morning she lost her daughter, Dunlavy left the hospital, planning to go home, do some laundry, and get back to Sarah's bedside by afternoon.

Instead, at 10 a.m. there was a knock on her door. It was a CPS case manager, there to serve Dunlavy with a notice to remove her child. The official accusation: neglect.

Dunlavy doesn't remember the first moments after finding out. She says she stayed in a state of shock for days; she lost 16 pounds in two weeks.

She barely got to say goodbye. She was allowed to visit Sarah for one hour with her father's supervision.

According to hospital notes, when visiting hour was over, the child began to cry and say, "Don't want mommy and daddy to go." She was used to spending every night with her mom. She was in a new room where the hospital was using a pseudonym so Dunlavy couldn't find her. She had an ankle bracelet on — the kind that people on house arrest wear — so she couldn't leave the room.

"Do you know how horrific it was to see her like that? With an ankle bracelet on her?" asks Dunlavy.

Dunlavy began to cry.

"Can't I just stay with her until she calms down?" she asked the nurse.

She couldn't. She didn't see her daughter again for three weeks.

Though she was first accused of neglect, by October 30, CPS had changed its allegation to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

It's a loaded accusation. In the past few years, there has been some debate over the legitimacy of the diagnosis. Roy Meadow, the British pediatrician who coined the term, even lost his license in 2005 (see "Medical drama").

Eric Mart says first-time, worried moms such as Dunlavy are prime targets to be accused.

"There are a lot of single mothers who don't have anyone to help them with their baby, and the emergency room is always open," he says. "If no one else will help, they'll help."

The charges against her: taking the child to the doctor frequently, reporting her weight in the 16th percentile when it was in the 50th, testing her for allergies, withholding food at the hospital, and pushing for a feeding tube.

A review of the child's medical records — including those from PCH — shows the allegations are false or wildly exaggerated.

CPS granted physical custody to the father, with a court order to establish paternity through a test. There are hospital notes that indicate CPS intended for dad to get sole custody even before the first dependency meeting.

Dunlavy's court-appointed lawyer was Jennifer Morse, a veteran of CPS dependency cases.

On Halloween, instead of taking Sarah trick-or-treating, Dunlavy attended her preliminary protective hearing, the first step toward a dependency trial, where the state submits its probable cause evidence against the parent. In Arizona, hearsay is enough for probable cause — no hard evidence against Dunlavy was submitted at this hearing.

Morse says she assumed CPS had all Sarah's medical records, or at least her DDD file, on which to base their decision to remove Sarah from her mother's care.

They didn't. No one possessed any evidence beyond allegations at the first hearing, and in the coming weeks, no effort would be made to collect any.

According to the state's own policy, specific steps must be taken before a child is removed from a parent because of MSBP, including finding an expert to perform an evaluation, providing the expert with the child's complete medical records, and interviewing the parent, family members, friends, and the child's medical-care providers from birth.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin