Phillip B. v. DCS

  • When an accused party challenges a substantiated abuse or neglect finding by DCS, what legal requirements must be met before the allegation is entered into the Central Registry?

Facts and Procedural History

Phillip B. worked in a group home with children, and had worked with children in various capacities for almost 30 years. In June 2018, a minor resident of the group home became agitated, and Phillip put his hand on the child’s shoulder to calm him down, ripping his T-shirt. There was a dispute about what happened next—the child said he couldn’t breathe, but Phillip and other adult witnesses testified that Phillip never put pressure on the child’s neck.

Someone reported the incident to DCS and a caseworker investigated the allegation. Following the investigation, the caseworker found probable cause that Phillip abused the child. The DCS Protective Services Review Team (PSRT) notified Phillip that it intended to enter the substantiated abuse allegation in the Central Registry. Although not a criminal charge, an entry on the Central Registry may disqualify someone from obtaining certain licenses or certifications, or prevent the accused from working with children.

Phillip first requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ took testimony from witnesses and found that no probable cause existed to substantiate the allegation of abuse. The ALJ’s decision was then reviewed by the DCS Director, who issued a Decision in which he partially accepted, partially rejected, and modified the ALJ’s findings and conclusions. Based on the modified Decision, the DCS Director determined that the allegation was substantiated and should be entered on the Central Registry.

Phillip filed a judicial review action in superior court. The superior court found substantial evidence to support the Director’s Decision and affirmed. Phillip then appealed the superior court’s ruling.

Ruling

Before being entered on the Central Registry, an allegation of abuse or neglect must follow the substantiation process set forth in the Arizona Administrative Code:

  1. The DCS caseworker completes an investigation and finds probable cause for abuse or neglect.
  2. The PSRT notifies the accused that DCS intends to substantiate the finding and informs the accused of their right to a probable cause hearing.
  3. If the accused timely requests a hearing (within 20 days of the PSRT notification), it goes to a hearing before an ALJ.
  4. If the ALJ finds probable cause, the DCS Director reviews the ALJ’s determination and, if appropriate, accepts it.

In this case, the ALJ found no probable cause to substantiate the allegation. Therefore, there was nothing for the Director to accept. The Director may not modify the ALJ’s findings to substantiate an allegation, even if it reaches a different conclusion after reviewing the evidence.

Only if both conditions are met—the ALJ finds probable cause and the Director accepts the ALJ’s finding—is a finding substantiated and entered into the Central Registry.

Phillip B. v. Arizona Dep’t of Child Safety, 1 CA-CV 20-0569, 2022 WL 2128078 (App. June 14, 2022).