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

On a cool winter day, late afternoon casts a creepy, lonely light across a little girl's bedroom. Madeline sits waiting for a tea party. A row of Disney princesses lines a bed that's never been slept in.

Carol Dunlavy spends a lot of time alone in here, one of two bedrooms in an apartment in north Scottsdale. Sometimes she cleans. Sometimes she brings in a magazine and reads. Sometimes she just sits.

It's been more than five months since Dunlavy lost custody of Sarah, her 2-year-old daughter. She stopped counting at 134 days.

"I couldn't keep doing it because every time I woke up I would think, 'There's another day,'" she says. "I'd watch the clock for hours until it got to 8:30 and I knew she'd be getting down to sleep."

She tries not to watch the clock during the two hours a week she now gets with Sarah, visits held not at home but at the food court at Arrowhead Mall, halfway between her apartment and Sarah's father's home.

Child Protective Services took Sarah (not her real name) away after doctors suggested that Dunlavy might suffer from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, an incredibly rare and fascinating psychological condition in which an adult makes a child sick — often leading to invasive procedures on the child — in order to get attention from medical personnel.

It's the kind of case you'd see on a Law & Order rerun, a mother sneaking into her baby's hospital room late at night to inject an IV with poison, then standing by, showing concern, as doctors and nurses swarm. But it's not the kind of case doctors see very often in real life, and it's almost impossible to diagnose.

And in this case, CPS didn't do even the bare minimum it would have required to prove Dunlavy had Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy — or, for that matter, that she was putting her child in harm's way at all.

In Sarah's situation, the concern began with feeding problems she developed when she was 8 months old. Instead of medical procedures, Sarah had many hours each week of therapy, much of it provided by the state's Department of Developmental Disabilities. In the end, CPS (both DDD and CPS come under the umbrella of the state's Department of Economic Security) said doctors claimed Dunlavy was trying to get a feeding tube surgically inserted in her daughter's stomach. In fact, medical records document that Dunlavy was adamant the tube was not necessary.

A pediatrician who'd spent just 20 minutes with Sarah and Dunlavy was the one who first suggested Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. His colleagues ran with it. So did CPS.

When CPS came to Dunlavy's door to let her know they were taking Sarah away, they didn't have all the answers. That's not surprising, and technically, it's okay. When she took office, Governor Janet Napolitano made CPS a priority, and her mandate was — and is — to put the child's rights ahead of the parent's. Take the child first, ask questions later.

But later never happened.

The most basic questions still weren't answered, yet Carol Dunlavy lost custody of her daughter. Permanently.

The case was dismissed in January. No criminal charges were ever filed against Carol Dunlavy. But still, Sarah was sent to live with a father she barely knew, and Dunlavy never got her day in court.

While they didn't follow their protocol, CPS was obviously determined to get Dunlavy — for something. The charges against her changed four times in 10 weeks, from neglect (although Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy was suspected from the beginning) to MSBP to mental illness and, finally, "excessive care."

In the end, Dunlavy's greatest sin appears to be a lie she told long before Sarah was conceived, to a guy she was trying to impress. She'd claimed to have a degree in psychology (often, those who suffer from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy are medical personnel).

Dunlavy and her attorney, Jennifer Morse, a former assistant attorney general who represented CPS for five years and is now in private practice, agreed to tell their story to New Times.

New Times is not naming Sarah's father, in order to protect the child's identity; the two share a surname. He did not respond to a letter asking for his comment. His attorney did not return a phone call or e-mail asking for comment.

CPS officials also refused to comment, citing confidentiality, although there is a law on the books that allows them to weigh in if a case has already been made public. Lauren Lowe, the assistant attorney general in the case, declined comment, as did Phoenix Children's Hospital and other doctors and therapists contacted for this story. And juvenile court proceedings are secret.

New Times did obtain hundreds of pages of documents — including Sarah's medical records from birth until her removal from Dunlavy's custody — as well as CPS and court documents.