A long-time client was recently accused of inappropriately touching his daughter while she bathed. I handled the original custody matter when the child was only six (6) months old. My client, we will call him “Mike,” and the mother of their child, we will call her “Sarah,” were never married. They had an on-again, off-again relationship and lived together for a brief time in Scottsdale before breaking up. Sarah found out she was pregnant a few weeks after Mike asked her to move out of his home.
Their relationship was not overly tumultuous (at least from the perspective of an attorney who routinely handles high-conflict Family Court cases in Maricopa County). There were no reported domestic violence incidents, but Mike did have a possession of marijuana charge prior to the relationship. Again, nothing too dramatic. They were pre-gaming before a Rodger Clyne and the Peacemakers concert in Phoenix, where he was arrested for possession of a small amount of weed. Other than that, and a few inconsequential traffic infractions, my client did not have a noteworthy legal history.
Sarah was bitter that the court gave Mike parenting time equivalent to 3 days a week. Her anger subsided when Sarah and Mike briefly rekindled their relationship during a few parenting time exchanges. In retrospect, it was a bad idea, as Sarah thought that the sexual relationship meant more than Mike did. Around the same time, Mike, who was a medical resident at the time the matter started but was now a credentialed pediatrician, moved into a home in Paradise Valley.
A few months after their last fling, Mike began to date someone and the relationship became serious and exclusive in the following months. His girlfriend, also in healthcare (a dentist), moved into the PV home and they were engaged shortly thereafter.
The now-fiancée spent some time with the child, and they had a healthy and blossoming step-parent relationship. She would occasionally watch the child in the evenings if Mike had an on-call issue and had to go to the hospital. It was a good situation and continued to improve as the couple planned their Mexico wedding.
Then, about 6 weeks before the beach wedding, things started to escalate with Sarah. Mike needed the child’s passport to bring her to the wedding. Sarah balked, claiming that Cancun was unsafe because it is “in Mexico.” My office was re-engaged to deal with the passport issue and to get the Parenting Coordinator and Family Court to address the issue on an expedited basis. Although we quickly cleared up the passport issue, what should have been the next happy chapter in Mike’s life was about to turn into a nightmare.
About 2 weeks before the wedding, a police officer knocked on Mike’s front door and asked to ‘talk’. According to the report, Sarah claimed that their daughter had been ‘touched’ by him because the child, barely 3 years old, had some sort of vaginal irritation. My client snapped at the officer, livid that he was being accused of inappropriately touching his daughter. He calmed quickly and excused himself from the conversation to call me. (It was late in the evening and he managed to track down one of the attorneys in our office by cell phone.)
Mike was advised not to discuss the matter and demand to speak to his counsel. The officer respected the request and may have realized that there was something odd about the allegation.
CPS, however, advised Sarah that she should not let Mike have parenting time “while the investigation was opened.” So, she filed an emergency petition seeking to suspend his parenting time because he “had molested my daughter.”
The court granted the request ex parte (without giving notice or a chance to be heard to Mike).
We scrambled. I have handled false allegations (and not-false allegations) many times and knew that we needed to get the medical records and find out about any disclosures made by the child. The irritation, according to not only her primary care pediatrician but also an expert forensic examiner, was nothing more than irritation from toilet paper from a child learning to clean herself.
Then, we reviewed the forensic interview of the child. She seemed beyond coached,
inconsistent, and incoherent. Ultimately, the police found “no cause” to charge Mike and CPS unsubstantiated the allegation, but the wedding was postponed and Mike was traumatized by how close he was to facing substantial prison time on a felony conviction based on nothing more than Mother’s naked allegation.
Everything was on the line for my client – his relationship with his daughter, his medical license, his reputation – all for Mother’s revenge.
I share this story because this situation far too common. Police, DCS agents, and sometimes even Superior Court Judges often react first and reason later in child abuse allegation cases because no one wants to guess wrong and wind up on the front page of the Arizona Republic if a child is harmed. Understanding the process and helping educate the Courts (and sometimes the “experts”) is critical to ensuring that false allegations are disproven and the collateral damage is minimal.