We all set limits for our kids, especially in regards to their health and safety. We make decisions about how much television they're allowed to watch, how much sugar they can eat, what sort of environment we'd like them to grow up in, and when and where they're allowed a little bit of independence. It's our job as parents to protect our kids and most of us take that pretty seriously, but what happens when other parents call the cops over perfectly harmless things because, in their opinion, you're not taking your job seriously enough?
That's the subject of a recent article in Salon about moms who left their children unattended in the car for a few minutes and ended up in handcuffs. The exact circumstances of each situation and the ages of the kids differ, but what happened to each of these moms is exactly the same. They made a decision about what to do with their kids, ran into the store for 10 minutes or less, and ended up confronted by police thanks to what the author calls the 'moral vigilantism' of total strangers.
One mom, Monique, left her eight-year-old and four-year-old alone together so she could run into the store to grab a baked chicken. While she was waiting in line, she heard her name being called over the intercom and walked out to find her car surrounded by police officers.
Monique heard her name being paged, asking her to return to her car. When she got there she found three police officers surrounding it, asking if she was the mother of the children in the vehicle, shouting at her, “Do you know how dangerous this is?” The two male officers went about the lengthy business of finding an appropriate charge, while the female officer continued to berate Monique, who stood, stunned, next to the car, while her daughters cried.
It seems crazy, but this is a thing that happens now. The article features three other women, including the author herself, who left their kids in the car for minutes at a time, only to find out they were in trouble with the law. One mother of a three-year-old left her child in the car on a cool day with the windows cracked while she went inside to get a fireplace screen to keep the toddler away from their fireplace. She ended up being charged with felony child endangerment and classified as a violent family offender. She had to miss her daughter's first day of preschool for a court date and was given a year of probation with supervision.
While I personally wouldn't leave my three-year-old in the car unattended, I have to question the wisdom of immediately calling the police in such a scenario. The child was not locked in a hot car with the windows up. She was resting comfortably for a few moments while her mom ran an errand. Why is the instinct in that scenario to immediately get police involved? Shouldn't we assess these things on a case by case basis and invoke a little bit of logic?
20 states have laws on the books about leaving children unattended in vehicles, but the majority do not, and the guidelines vary from state to state. In my state, for example, the law states children under age six may not be left unattended for any amount of time. In others, children may not be left unattended for 'an amount of time that constitutes a substantial risk to their health.' What amount of time is that, exactly? I'm willing to bet each of us has a different answer.
It's human to want to step in when someone is in danger, but we have to remember that just because a parent does something differently than we might does not mean their kid is in distress. If a child's health and well-being is threatened, that's one thing, but we have to use better judgment in cases where the level of risk is open to interpretation. Just happening to see a child alone in a car is not justification for having someone arrested, and doing so might end up harming the child far beyond the danger you imagined in the first place.