A Prosecutor Debates the “Kids Waiting in the Car” Arrest

Hi Readers — A few posts down we were discussing a questionable arrest for “child endangerment.” In this case, the parents had left their  9- and 6-year-olds waiting in the car while they ran into Walmart for what turned out to be half an hour. Vis a vis child safety: The windows were cracked, the doors were locked, the 6-year-old was sleeping and the 9-year-old was reading. The older child was also given a cell phone.  Here is what one prosecutor wrote, which I found insightful:

I am a former prosecutor who worked for some time in abuse and neglect.  I have raised two kids–very much alive, healthy, and active–to their early 20’s.  If I had let every scenario that got played out in my courtroom define ‘reality’ for me I’d have never had children to begin with.  Come to think of it, if I had let every criminal law case I was ever involved with in any manner define reality for me, I’d barricade my home and never leave it.

The ‘reality’ is that we run risks every minute we are alive.  Which shall we, as individuals, change our behavior to avoid or minimize?  And what risk taking behavior should we, collectively, criminalize? 

The legislature of the State of NY has evidently seen fit to criminalize the ‘leaving’ of children ‘unattended’ in a parked automobile if the children are younger than a certain age.  But that is just statute.  An officer of the law has discretion to arrest or not; arrest is not mandatory and should not be.  An officer has the discretion, and is indeed obligated, to exercise his or her judgment in each and every situation the officer encounters than might involve law breaking as to whether or not an arrest should be made.

In this instance, unless the readers of this blog are not receiving some key piece of information, no harm or damage resulted from the actions of these parents.  The parent or parents were arrested not for something they did, but for the possibility that something harmful could occur.  And did not.

I don’t see what good can or will result from this arrest.  I do see that among the readers of this blog it is generating fear, anxiety, and resentment.  I expect that these parents will never leave a kid of theirs alone anywhere, under ANY circumstances, ever again.

If that is considered a ‘good’ and a legitimate exercise of legislative and police power, then there you have it.  To me, it sounds — in the very least — wacky and overblown, and perhaps grossly unfair, and even destructive. 

The desire and impulse to make the world safe for each and every child is a good one, but obviously impossible to effect.  Arrests such as these, in my opinion, deflect valuable (and expensive) police and governmental time and energies away from the myriad pressing dangers facing our children and young people…. Don’t even get me started on gang violence!

Lecture finis.

Thanks for it! I’d add that when we try to protect our kids from every possible “Worst Case” scenario, we forget that there is another worst  case we ignore: Raising children who believe the world is so dangerous that they’d better not try to do anything on their own, ever. — Lenore

28 Responses

  1. The issue though is when it is specifically illegal in a state. Like mine–Connecticut, there is a clear law that we can’t leave kids alone in a car until they are 13 years old, different levels of the charge by time of day, worst is a felony.

    So at present in Connecticut at least, debating about how leaving kids alone in a car at certain ages should be okay is moot. With all the problems in CT such as a huge budget that the govenor won’t even sign a current law like this is not up for debate and change. So responsible parents who want to avoid arrest (like me) abide by the law.

  2. Actually, the Connecticut law states that it’s only a crime if the child is left unsupervised for ‘for a period of time that presents a substantial risk to the child’s health or safety,” a law that was clearly put in place because of all the reports of unattended children left in cars at the casinos. I can’t believe any prosecutor would see a half-hour as a substantial risk. Also, since the 9 year-old had a cellphone, can you really consider them “unsupervised?”

  3. All the laws in the world will not protect our children from everything. It is unfortunate that good meaning, intelligent, common-sense laden parents will be inconvenienced or even arrested because of the headline-making idiots whose children suffer unimaginable pain because of their own stupidity and lack of common sense.

    I live in Arizona. Every year at least one child dies because they are left in a hot car. All the laws in the world will not stop this because some people are simply, unfortunately, stupid. They go to work, leaving their toddler in the car because they FORGOT about their kid.

    Have I ever left my children in the car? YES. With the engine running, the AC on, and the doors locked. I run in, grab the thing I need, or hit the ATM and I come back. They are fine. They have suffered no ills from my actions. No big-bad-mean-man is there in the shadows lurking, just waiting for me to abandon my 3 boys. (Ok, fine, it could be because there ARE no shadows in Arizona, but I digress).

    I suppose my point is this: The law is unnecessary due to the simple fact that people’s stupidity cannot be controlled by a mere act of passing a law.

  4. Samantha, people don’t generally forget their kids because they’re stupid, they forget because that’s the way the brain works. (Or doesn’t, in that case.) The last thing they need in that situation is more judging.

  5. Too right, Uly. I’ve seen a number of articles that talk about just that. Stupidity isn’t the cause of forgetfulness, and as it turns out, sometimes we forget even that which is most important to us. It’s not what anyone wants, and it doesn’t have bad results for most people–but sadly, sometimes it does.

  6. Uly is right. Parents who forget their children in the car do so usually because of some sort of break in the routine – daycare was canceled, so they have a toddler sleeping in the back seat during an errand for which they usually don’t have any kids along, or a different caregiver than usual is given the task of dropping the child off but becomes distracted and falls into their usual routine of going to work or wherever, leaving the child in the car…it’s never intentional, but it’s not necessarily stupidity either – just the truth that most of us spend much of our day on autopilot.

    One of the scariest tendencies of our societal obsession with control and safety is the resulting disdain for parents whose children do come to harm. I can’t imagine any worse fate than to lose a child, unless it is to lose a child and have it widely considered your fault! It’s gotten so only parents of terminally ill children can be held blameless for their loss, and then only if they haven’t made any controversial medical decisions.

  7. I appreciate this essay.

    I noted in the previous thread there were many who insisted that once cops were called, they were forced to make an arrest. I thank the writer of this essay for clearing us up on that.

    Oh, and as for this:

    “I do see that among the readers of this blog it is generating fear, anxiety, and resentment. I expect that these parents will never leave a kid of theirs alone anywhere, under ANY circumstances, ever again.”

    Reading Free Range Kids has been eye-opening. It is admittedly upsetting to read the comments from some of the paranoid or those who are angry and would lump EVERY parent who deviates from constant attempts of “control and saftey” as an abusive parent. And this has made me even more aware that there are those who might indeed call the cops on me or judge me for something I deem right and appropriate for my family. Yet I still pledge to raise my kids the way that makes sense to me – to afford them some “dignity of risk”, to let them out in the world. I appreciate so much those who post, comment, and right for the site who are doing the same, and I appreciate Lenore for starting this site.

  8. In CA I was recently informed (by our preschool program) that Kaitlyn’s law forbids leaving a child 6 or under in a car for *any length of time* without someone 12 or older supervising. Now, the actual text of the law indicates “Where there are conditions that present a significant risk to the child’s health or safety” (http://www.4rkidssake.org/kaitlynslaw.html ), but that’s not how it was presented to us parents – we were told *under no circumstances* was a child under six to be left alone in a car for any length of time. What about leaving the A/C on for him during the heat? Second case where it’s not permissable is “When the vehicle’s engine is running or the vehicle’s keys are in the ignition, or both.” Essentially, there might be two weeks a year when our weather does not result in a car being viewed as a significant risk… So, if I get him strapped into the car and suddenly realize he’s still got his name tag on, I can’t dash back in and drop it off. I have to get him back out, take him with me, and then bring him back to the car and strap him in again which can be a trial depending on his mood and how taunting walking him past the playground/toy room is.

    While the law itself is frustrating, I find the more aggravating part is the way it was misrepresented to us. Recommending we just not ever do it to cover our behinds is one thing, but let us make informed choices, don’t misrepresent/scare tactic us into the desired behavior.

    The law was passed due to hyperthemia deaths in the past, but it’s frustrating when even returning a shopping cart is considered too long to leave a kid in a car… (they’ve also since expanded the law to cover pets as well)

    As for forgetting the kid being not stupidity… I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where my shifted schedule or interrupted train of thought resulted in me forgetting my son is in the back seat! And even if it did, does having a law mean I’m then more likely to *remember*?! How does that work? The threat of legal punishment is better incentive to remember than the health of my kid?! Ludicrous.

  9. I stayed in the car ALL THE TIME growing up because I HATED to go shopping with my mum. In fact, I stayed in the car for most errand runs unless it was stifling hot. The doors were always locked and I knew to raise hell if anyone tried to accost me. My over-protective grandma & aunts even let me stay in the car. I think I started staying in the car for short trips when I was around 6 or 7 and then by the time I was 9 or 10 I would be in the car the entire 1 to 1 1/2 hour of grocery trips.

    Unless it is terribly cold/hot and the child isn’t old enough to unbuckle themselves, run/walk away from the car to get help if needed or to flee from danger or can’t be trusted to otherwise stay in the car, then I don’t see where the problem lies with children staying in the car. (I’m NOT okay with babies/toddlers being left alone in cars)

  10. What a wise and well-written letter. Kudos to the author.

  11. As for forgetting the kid being not stupidity… I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where my shifted schedule or interrupted train of thought resulted in me forgetting my son is in the back seat!

    Have you ever forgotten your phone? Locked your keys in the car? Left your shopping list on the table? Gone to another room and then forgotten why you did so? Meant to go to one place, but taken the wrong turn because that’s the way you USUALLY go?

    You think your son is in a different category, but your brain doesn’t. If you can forget your phone, you can forget your kid. Nobody can “imagine it happening” until it does happen, and then they can see it all too well. I personally know several people who left their kid in a car and forgot all about them for several minutes before being reminded. Fortunately, nothing happened to the kids in question because their parents remembered before anything could happen, but this is a definite What Could Have Happened situation.

    Happily, while this is no doubt a nightmare for the families involved (and they really shouldn’t be judged for it), it’s not exactly common for children to die being left in a car. In the US, less than 50 children a year die this way, most of them not school-aged yet. However, I’ve never yet seen any evidence that these people are in any way different from the rest of us, no more than I’ve seen evidence that those kids abducted by strangers had parents who didn’t take care of them properly. It’s just one of those things.

  12. […] A Prosector Debates the â??Kids Waiting in the Carâ? Arrest … […]

  13. This hits home. I have a 9 year old and 6 year old as well, and many a times have I run into the store to grab something while they waited in the car-locked. Now, they are always given the choice by me. Do you wanna stay in the car or run in quickly with me? The car always wins!

    Sounds like this parent did everything right, even armed the child with the cell phone to boot. Who doesn’t remember the torture as a kid running errands? It’s misery. A quick jaunt into a store to grab one or two items is perfectly acceptable.

    Our state law reads that any child 8 years and older may be home alone but not in charge of any other children. I have not seen anything that specifically talks about being left alone in a vehicle though.

  14. “Prosector”?

  15. ” does having a law mean I’m then more likely to *remember*?! How does that work? The threat of legal punishment is better incentive to remember than the health of my kid?! Ludicrous.”

    Excellent comment.

    Our society is broken. And much of it related to the lack of social interaction in free play, and those kids are now growing up and being parents.

    Uly posted this link to the NY Times article about Let the Children Play – Some More , it is an amazing article.

    And it points out how if we do not have free play, we cannot learn how to interact. We don’t learn who our friends are and how to choose them. We don’t learn how to handle or avoid tough situations such as bullying or teasing, and we do not learn how to stand up and say no to someone.

    As a FRK I learned that if you cheated no one would play with you, and if you pushed someone pushed back, usually harder, and if mouthed off at someone you stood the chance of being beaten up, so you better either watch you mouth or have your friends behind you, or learn to be witty and funny to deflect it.

    My mom did not rescue me, she told me to work it out (then she would call the other mom up and we BOTH would get grounded).

    We all do stupid things, and we learn from them. Sometimes we learn from other people doing stupid tragic things. Making laws against stupid just is, well, stupid.

    I think that I will have my YouTube queued up for a while watching the related videos from the link that was posted above about Electronics. Hysterical!
    Parenting Video by Tony Hawkins from http://parentinghelpinkansas.com/2009/09/

  16. Uly – while I have locked my keys in the car and even forgotten why I went into a given room (I don’t carry a cell phone), my brain is also wired a little differently than usual. When it comes to people, I am trained to hypervigilance because of 20 years of abuse growing up. Keys are just things. People I am highly aware of, and when I had my kids I felt my hypervigilance kick back in to a degree I’d not used it in a decade. Perhaps my son is enjoying the silver lining benefits of my PTSD?

    But ultimately the point remains – the law is NOT going to make us remember better, especially if your point is fully accurate.

  17. But ultimately the point remains – the law is NOT going to make us remember better, especially if your point is fully accurate.

    Oh, definitely.

    And I’m glad you can find that silver lining, though sorry you have to.

  18. Child endangerment charges are intended for situations more severe than can be dealt with by simple removal of kids from the home by Child Protective Services. This is clearly a capricious use of police power to harass ordinary parents by cops who are probably not trained in issues of child welfare and child abuse.

  19. Leaving kids is all innocent until somebody smashes the window and abducts one or more of the little dears.

  20. Leaving kids is all innocent until somebody smashes the window and abducts one or more of the little dears.

    When has that ever happened? Seriously, when? You name me ONE time when somebody has DELIBERATELY smashed a car window to abduct a child. (I do not count times when somebody was stealing the car and got a kid free and the kid was returned safe and sound as soon as Mr. Joyride realized what he’d done.)

    And then answer me this: If somebody is willing to smash a car window to abduct a child – mind that this involves there being a child to abduct in the first place, which is certainly not a forgone conclusion – what’s stopping them from snatching the kid from their mommy’s hands?

  21. The Monday after my roommate’s boss died, she was in the car halfway to work when she realized she had failed to drop her (school aged) daughter off at school. It can happen, even to non-free-range parents.

    Now that I have a baby, I worry all summer about forgetting to drop him off, and madly resist any change to that part of the routine, for just that reason.

    My mom’s hypervigilance came close to causing us a problem once– she locked the car by hand before I got the baby out. Fortunately she’d locked us out of the same car a few weeks before and I subsequently made sure I had the keys in my hand every time I left the car.

  22. I have four sons, 13, 10, 7, and 5. They would much prefer to be left in a car than to run into the bank, convenience store etc. I grew up sitting in the car as well.

    I’ve also accidentally left a child, at home, and had to drive pretty quickly to get him. Things happen, but all of the hypervigilance in the worl will not stop them from happening. Creepy people are out there, whether I am present or not.

  23. @ Glen C you write, “since the 9 year-old had a cellphone, can you really consider them ‘unsupervised?'” Um, yes, yes you can. Could you imagine leaving a 9-year old “home alone” for a week (with food, clean clothes, etc. — let’s keep this pleasant) and say that doing so was “OK” because the home had a phone in it and therefore the child was “supervised?”

    Supervision involves someone with some level of maturity/responsibility checking in on a child at appropriate intervals. What level of maturity is needed will vary, ditto the intervals, depending on the age of the child and the circumstances (among other things), but leaving a child with a cell phone is providing the child with a mechanism for seeking help — not at all the same as providing supervision.

  24. This is an unfortunate use of resources and is not the intent of the law. As a survivor of physical child abuse, I find it a bit insulting. Child endangerment should be reserved for situations where children are in danger. This was clearly not the case.

  25. This article hit home for me. My kids & I were heading to a local pool & decided to run by a store to pick up a couple of floats. We frequent this store & know exactly where everything is located. When we arrived, my then 10 year old son was not feeling well (hypoglycemic, he had waited a bit long to eat & the food hadn’t kicked in to make him feel better yet) & asked if he could stay in the car while I ran in with my 7 year old. I cracked all of the windows, even making sure they weren’t down so far that someone could reach in & unlock them, locked the car & hurried into the store. We got what we came for & were in the checkout line, paying, when the store ran an announcement describing MY car asking the owner to meet someone outside. I rushed out, in a panic, to find an officer at my car waiting for me!! We were not in the store even 15 mins & she told me she could arrest me for child abandonment or something like that. Well obviously I was totally panicked! I was shaking from head to toe, BOTH of my kids were now freaked out because NONE of us thought this was a problem. Apparently we have a law where I live that you have to be like 12 to be left in a car. I did not know. Thankfully, seeing how upset I was she let me go. It ruined our day at the pool as we all felt miserable that we had unknowingly committed a “CRIME”. I sat in the car, alone or with my older sister, ALL the time when I was a kid. Guess it’s amazing I made it to my 30s!!

  26. I am so livid right now.

    On our way home from karate, I took my boys to pick up some take and bake pizzas for supper. They wanted to wait in the car. No problem. The air-conditioning had been blairing and they were happily sipping on Gatorade. I parked at the strip mall in front of the store’s picture window, locked the doors and went in. I was not in two minutes (literally), when this woman came storming in demanding to know whose kids those were. Now, I immediately assumed that my kids were out of their belts horsing around in the car and I was heading out to deal with it. But no. The woman was screaming at ME that she was going to call 911 because I had left them in the van without cracking the windows! Did I mention that my sons are 6 and nearly 11 and can undo their own seat belts and open their own car doors? And they are fully aware that they should do this if they get hot? It is a cool autumn evening and I was not even gone 5 minutes (and they have Gatorade!) She just kept yelling at me and I was pushed to the limit to keep my cool so that she would NOT call 911. If I’d had the presence of mind to address this woman, I would have told her that 911 was for emergencies– not to tattle on moms of 6 and 10 year olds who are in NO DANGER WHATSOEVER!

    My 10 year old son was humiliated by the whole scene–that she would think he was too stupid to open the door.

    Thanks for the place to vent.

  27. I am so refreshed to read this. I too was assaulted in the parking lot for a 10 min. run– windows opened and sun roof lifted. It does seem to me-especially if the child has the ability to leave the car, that the parent should be trusted first and not accused of a crime when the child is fine. When a person comes screaming at you and threatening to call 911-are they really caring about your child? Can they not look in the car and see if your kids are ok-and then let it go? I just moved to MD and know -NOW that it is illegal to leave your kids even for a second in an unattended car. I was told if the police come they take your child away immediately. The parent then is assumed guilty rather than innocent until proven guilty. My question is-guilty of what? If your child is in fine health when you return to the car what crime have you committed? Your judgement is in tact. What on earth is happening in this country? Where are our reasoning abilities?

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