Child welfare workers can interview children without the consent of their parents, Attorney General Mark Brnovich concluded Monday.
In a 10-page formal opinion, Brnovich said a contrary finding by the Arizona Ombudsman office is legally wrong. In fact, the attorney general suggested that opinion was based on “hypertechnical textual analysis.”
Monday’s opinion is a victory for Greg McKay, director of the state Department of Child Safety. He has consistently insisted that interviews without parental consent have been agency practice for some time.
And McKay said he could find no court rulings to the contrary.
An attorney general’s opinion does not carry the same weight as a published appellate court ruling. But it can be cited by attorneys in a legal battle.
Potentially more significant, state agencies are entitled to rely on that opinion.
The legal dispute came after a mother complained in 2014 that DCS staffers took her children out of school. The issue in that case was a report of neglect involving her brother’s children.
According to reports, her children were living in the same home as the brother.
The case was classified not as abuse but the lesser offense of neglect. Based on that, the ombudsman said state law required DCS to get the mother’s permission to conduct interviews.
Brnovich disagreed, saying there are provisions in state law creating exceptions. And he said one of those exceptions is when there is an investigation that DCS is statutorily authorized to do.
Senate President Andy Biggs, who has been critical of some of the procedures used by DCS, said he was concerned about the new opinion. He said it gives too much authority to the agency.
“If you have probable cause to believe there’s some kind of criminality, then I understand interviewing the child outside the presence of a parent,” he said. “But that’s kind of where you draw the line.’’
Biggs said he wants to study the opinion further before deciding whether changes are needed in the law.