What Are Your Children Posting Online?

Some time ago, I represented a teenager in a highly publicized arson case.  My client, who was 15 at the time, was accused of burning down three (3) houses and a number of cars in an established North Phoenix neighborhood.  The original damage estimate for the property was in excess of $2 million dollars. 

The child’s parents, who were in the country on H1 Visas, hired me when the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office began procedures to transfer their son to the adult system so that he could be fully prosecuted for the series of arson fires.  As his defense lawyer, it was my job to keep my client in the Juvenile Court where we he could both get treatment and not be exposed to a prison sentence that exceeded his 18th birthday.    We successfully avoided the transfer and convinced the Court that keeping the child in the Juvenile Court was the best option.  (Notably, with arson crimes it is common to find that the accused suffered from some significant childhood trauma triggering serious mental health issues.  This was a major factor for the Court’s decision.)  In this case, the kid’s parents, who both had graduate degrees and appeared worldly, were completely blindsided by their son’s transgressions and clearly did not understand the extent of his mental health challenges.  Fortunately both a forensic psychologist and a psychiatrist agreed that there were mental health issues warranting keeping the kid in the juvenile system.

Years later, most people remember the case because of the extraordinary damage caused by the fires, but few know that the arson string was stopped as a result of a posting on MySpace.com and the actions of another parent who insisted on monitoring her child’s web activities.  As much as this is a story about oblivious and arguably negligent parents, it is also a story about a vigilant mother who monitored her son’s web activity and called the police when she realized what she was witnessing.  Yes, my client made a comment about the arsons on his friend’s MySpace page and the monitoring mother thought it was consistent with what she had been reading in the newspaper.  When the police knocked on his door to ask if he knew about the incidents, he admitted his involvement.  (Yes…had he simply invoked his right to remain silent, this string of arsons would most likely have gone without an arrest, but the consequences of Juvenile Miranda warnings will be the subject of a future entry.) 

So…if you are still reading this story you are probably wondering what happened to the kid.  He spent some time in jail, did some therapy, and went through probation and services through the Juvenile court.  But, despite our hard work to keep him out of custody, I was disappointed to learn that he has been arrested twice since the arsons.

What Should I Do? CPS Left A Card On My Door To Call Them!

frequently get calls from parents who have come home to find a CPS note on their door. It is usually a business card from a CPS investigator requesting that the parent contact them immediately.  

In Arizona, Child Protective Services has an obligation to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.  (The investigations include, but are not limited to: unexplained bruises, malnutrition symptoms, Munchausen’s Syndrome, and parents with substance abuse issues.) Their job is to assure that children are safe, but often their investigation leads to serious legal consequences, including CPS taking the children from their parents and criminal charges.

When you get a note on your door you should not ignore it.  If you fail to respond you could be sending the wrong message to CPS or unwittingly keeping your child in danger if they suspect that someone else under your roof is abusing the child.   Yes, you need an attorney. Even if CPS does not remove your child, their ‘substantiated’ findings can impact you dramatically.  Teachers, doctors, therapists and other licensed professionals can lose their careers over these issues. 

The Constitution guarantees you the right to remain silent and not answer questions.  While not answering their questions can be dangerous, you need to strongly consider telling CPS that you will cooperate with their investigation but only with your lawyer present. 

Remember, if you get a note on your door, do not panic (but be sure to seek out the help you need to handle the situation with care).