Last week, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge temporarily blocked the state of Arizona from adding a Tucson mother to the state's list of unfit parents.
Sarra, whose full name is withheld to protect her privacy, was arrested for alleged child endangerment in 2020 after allowing her 7-year-old son and his 5-year-old friend to play at the park while she ran an errand. Reason's Robby Soave covered her story here.
Sarra's case was dropped after she pled guilty and agreed to take parenting classes, but the state's Department of Child Safety (DCS) moved forward with a separate action: adding Sarra's name to the Central Registry, a government-maintained blacklist of Arizonans who are prohibited from working with children.
"I do not believe that I neglected him," said Sarra, when she testified. "No, I believe that playing in the park is something that was appropriate to his development level, to who he is right now."
At Sarra's hearing, the department argued that any number of horrible things could have happened to her son during the 30 minutes she was at the grocery store purchasing a Thanksgiving turkey: He could have been attacked by homeless people, witnessed drug abuse, sprained an ankle, broken an arm, or even stepped on glass or needles. Or he could have been abducted by a daytime kidnapper undeterred by all the dog walkers, park workers, and people attending a nearby tai chi class being taught by an acquaintance of Sarra. Sarra, on the other hand, argued that those things weren't likely to happen and didn't.
She lost. But then the Goldwater Institute and the Pacific Legal Foundation got involved, and in a rare bit of good news, a judge agreed to stop the department from adding Sarra's name to the Central Registry.
At Sarra's hearing, I testified as an expert witness, and I can tell you that Sarra's only crime was being rational.
The facts are not in dispute: Someone saw Sarra's son and his friend playing in the park and called the cops. In return for pleading guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and taking a life skills course, the criminal charges were dropped. But DCS was not as easily appeased.
The fact that there hadn't been a child abduction in over a decade, according to the Tucson police department's own records, made no difference. That Sarra went back to the park to scour for needles and found none was also irrelevant. And how about the fact that she had actually worked as a statistician early in her career, so she had an above-average understanding of relative risk? The state didn't care.
"Arizona courts have reasoned that in dealing with 'probable cause,' we deal with probabilities," said DCS attorney Kayla Peckard at the hearing. "These aren't technical or factual."
Peckard essentially conceded that so-called probabilities don't have to be, well, probable.
"Adopting statistical data as part of the standard of 'probable cause' runs contrary to the legal precedent," she said.
When I took the stand (via Zoom), Sarra's lawyer, Thea Gilbert, asked me about my research on stranger danger. I replied that in researching my book, Free-Range Kids, I learned that if for some reason you wanted your child to be snatched by a stranger, you would have to leave a child outside for 750,000 years for that particular crime to be statistically likely to happen.
Gilbert then asked about the "reasonable childhood independence" laws that my nonprofit, Let Grow, helped to pass in four states. I noted that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) had just signed his state's bill into law the day before. "What's the significance of a childhood independence law?" Gilbert asked.
In most states, I replied, the neglect laws are pretty broad. That leaves them wide open to interpretation. Given all the different decisions a parent has to make and all the different judgments that onlookers (and caseworkers) might have, the reasonable independence laws clarify that neglect is only when you put your kids in obvious, serious, and likely danger—not anytime you take your eyes off them.
"Have any of those childhood independence laws been enacted in Arizona?" the DCS lawyer asked during cross-examination.
"Not yet," I admitted.
But the tides are turning. Timothy Sandefur, the Goldwater Institute's vice president for legal affairs, is hopeful that the appeals judge will rule that the bar for blacklisting parents—probable cause—is unconstitutionally low.
Right now, Sandefur explained, mere "probable cause" can get you listed. But probable cause is the low bar cops use to obtain a warrant.
"It's basically synonymous with 'suspicion,'" he says.
Guaranteeing people due process in such hearings and narrowing government neglect laws will ensure parents can make reasonable parenting decisions—and even let their kids play outside—without getting slammed by the state.