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

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She could side with the AG and give custody to dad. She could side with Morse and return everyone to the position they were in before the state took Sarah. Or she could decide to go ahead with the trial, hear the evidence, and then make a decision.

Morse argued that Sinclair really had only two choices because she felt the AG's request was legally impossible.

"If you're going to change the mother's legal position to her child, then she has a right to be heard," she says.

Sinclair took a recess and came back with her decision 22 minutes later.

Morse was stunned. The judge dismissed the dependency petition and released the child to her father's custody, making orders against Dunlavy without reviewing any evidence — something with frightening implications for Arizona's CPS system.

"It's terrifying. It means that CPS doesn't have to investigate," Morse says. "They can make allegations, they can go in and decide which parent they like better, and take the child."

Dunlavy has decided to fight.

"I must have been the only person in Arizona who ever wanted to go to trial," she says, "because I knew they violated all their policies."

"Everybody gets a hearing in juvenile court. There are parents who are incarcerated for life who are allowed to protest dependency — murderers, rapists, and child molesters — they have a constitutional right to parent, so everyone gets a hearing," she says. "And she just didn't."

Morse has stayed on as Dunlavy's attorney and two other Phoenix lawyers, Tom Ryan and Deshon Pullen, have signed on pro bono to guide her through an appeal in family court. (The attorney general recently filed a motion to dismiss the appeal.)

Dunlavy and her attorneys are also discussing whether to file a civil suit against the state.

Life does go on. Dunlavy has enrolled in school at Scottsdale Community College to get the degree she lied about having.

Neither Dunlavy nor Morse has access to medical information that would tell them whether Sarah's weight has increased, or whether her feeding problems have been resolved. They do know she never got the PEG tube. And Dunlavy knows that Sarah is still in speech and occupational therapy at Phoenix Children's Hospital because they're still sending her the bills. (Berger also sent a bill recently, although his office didn't say what it was for.)

Dunlavy reports that her daughter does a pretty good job on her peanut butter and jelly sandwich and cookie when they're together for their visits at the food court at Arrowhead Mall.

Correction (posted April 24, 2008): It should have been reported that Maricopa County Superior Court Commissioner Joan Sinclair made the final decision on January 29 to dismiss Carol Dunlavy's dependency hearing.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin