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

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Most of those steps never happened. When they did, it took months for CPS to perform them.

Morse needed medical records to help her build a case. She still hadn't gotten them from CPS, so Dunlavy collected them herself. Phoenix Children's Hospital would not release the record of Sarah's stay because Dunlavy no longer had custody.

"I requested them from the assistant attorney general. This was four weeks into it. Finally she called me and said she didn't think they had anything," says Morse. "I was stunned. I said, 'I don't understand. You have to have something. You at least need to have the file your sister division has.' She said no. She thought they had based their dependency on talking to people. They don't have any records."

Morse, who has litigated cases for CPS in the past, knew this was a gross breach in policy.

"What the AG was telling me was they hadn't talked to anybody or looked at any of the records," she says. "And then they made a decision to take the most extreme step, to take the child from her mom."

Morse says that without reading that medical history, it's easy to miss Sarah's complex difficulties. Failing to interview Dunlavy added to the confusion.

"They [didn't] know anything from October to January about her parenting," says Morse. "They completely violated their policy. If they had followed it, I don't think they would have filed."

Morse decided to file a motion to return the child, based on the notion that CPS hadn't done its job. She also decided Dunlavy needed to find her own MSBP expert.

They found Loren Pankratz, a renowned expert on the topic and a professor at Oregon Health and Sciences University. Dunlavy flew to Portland for the evaluation at the end of December.

His conclusion: Dunlavy does not have Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, or any other kind of mental illness.

"I view this accusation as a breakdown in the delivery of medical service," he writes in the report. "This is not a case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy."

Dunlavy's dependency trial was slowly approaching and Morse was finding her client's case more and more bizarre. She couldn't figure out how CPS had decided to go as far as they did with it.

"It just seemed odd to me that there was this idea that the mother had made up the developmental disabilities," she says. "Because in order to get into the DDD program for Arizona Early Intervention, it can't just be the parent [saying there's a problem]. There has to be objective criteria," she says. "Not every child between zero and 3 is accepted."

In early January, Sarah's father got paternity test results back that proved he was her father. Immediately, the assistant AG filed a motion to dismiss the case and affirm the temporary orders that placed Sarah in her father's custody. She argued there was no need for a dependency trial now that it was clear the child had at least one fit parent.

Morse didn't respond right away. She already had trial dates set, and, because it was a case of the state against Dunlavy, not the father against the mother, she knew the dependency trial had to go on.

On January 10, 2008, Dunlavy agreed to an interview with the guardian ad litem (basically, Sarah's attorney), Lauren Hatfield. This was the first time anyone from the state interviewed Dunlavy.

At the meeting, Hatfield told Dunlavy and Morse she was concerned Dunlavy had "excessively cared" for the child and provided her with too much therapy.

"I argued that really wasn't for them to decide. It's something for the parent to decide," says Morse. "The child isn't going to be hurt by a speech therapist."

Dunlavy didn't know how to take it.

"I have no idea what law that is, but obviously, you can lose your child," she says. "So if anyone is out there and they care too much for their child, they better watch out."

The day before the dependency trial, Morse filed several motions. One was in response to the AG's motion to dismiss, which called on the state to give Sarah to her dad. She argued it was impossible to dismiss the case and just give the father custody. It violated Dunlavy's due process rights to award custody without a hearing.

She also filed a motion to dismiss the case because CPS had taken Sarah away without a good-faith basis to do so, and then had failed to follow its own policies while investigating the case.

So, on January 29, the day of the trial, Commissioner Joan Sinclair had three choices.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin