Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Is It Ever Okay To Leave A Child Alone In A Car?

On March 20, 2014, Shanesha Taylor had a job interview, after years of scraping by (and not scraping by) on low-paying retail jobs and going from house to house with her three children because she couldn't afford her rent. But when she arrived at the baby-sitter's house to drop off her two-year-old and six-month-old babies, the baby-sitter wasn't there. Stuck in a difficult position, Ms. Taylor had to make a quick decision about what to do with her children while she interviewed for this job. It was a job she was sure she would get. It paid well and would open the door to a much better future for herself and her kids. In a last, desperate move, she parked in the shade, left the fan running in the car, and went into the 70-minute job interview while her babies slept in the car.

Even her protective measures weren't enough to keep the car from heating up in the early spring Arizona sun, and her babies woke up and started crying. A passerby heard the crying and called the police. The children were hot but unharmed, and when Ms. Taylor came out of the office building, feeling great about the interview and her prospects for a better life, she found her car surrounded by police and her babies already on their way to the hospital to be assessed. She was arrested and charged with felony child abuse.

Her story hit the internet when her mug shot, with tears streaming down her face, went viral. As always, people lined up to take sides. Ms. Taylor became the poster child for poverty in the U.S., the difficulty of getting out of the cycle of homelessness and unemployment, and highlighting what's wrong with the "system," especially for women and minorities. (Ms. Taylor is African-American.) Money was quickly raised both for her bail and for her to find a home, and a petition was started to ask the prosecutor to use his discretion to drop the charges against her. "It's not like she left them alone to go party or buy drugs!", many commented. "She was going to JOB INTERVIEW!" On the other hand, plenty of commenters took the other side, that she made a very irresponsible decision to leave her kids alone for over an hour in a car, that they could have died in the hot sun, or been kidnapped, or her car could have been stolen, and what was she going to do about childcare if she did get the job? Some said she should have called to reschedule the interview, or taken the boys in with her and explain her dilemma, or taken them to a family member to be cared for. Obviously, whichever decision she made could have had unfortunate repercussions for her or her children, but the decision she ultimately made has certainly caused her pain and heartache and cost her both the job and her children. Thankfully, her sons are safe, unharmed, and staying with family until her case is decided.

Two years ago, Kim Brooks was in a hurry to catch a flight after a visit to her parents' home. She had two hours to get herself and her four-year-old packed up and to the airport, but she needed to run in to the store to grab headphones for her son to use on the plane. He insisted on coming with her, though she would have preferred to leave him at his grandparents' house while she ran the quick errand. Without time to argue, she let him come along, but he balked when they got to the store. He wanted to wait in the car playing with the iPad while she went in. She assessed the situation. It was cloudy and 50 degrees. There was no chance that her car would get hot, nor was her son in danger of freezing. She knew it would take her five minutes to run in and get the headphones, and she was stressed and rushing and didn't want to deal with a tantruming four-year-old. So she let him stay in the car for a few minutes, playing happily on the iPad, while she popped in to the store. When she came back, her son was still sitting happily, and they rushed off to the airport and flew home.

When they got home, there was a call from her parents saying that police were in their driveway. Apparently a bystander had videoed Ms. Brooks leaving her child in the car and running in to the store. After she had already left, this woman called the police, who used the license plate on the van (her parents' car) to track down her parents. What followed was a two-year nightmare of legal battles, court dates, and eventually conviction on a misdemeanor for contributing to the delinquency of a child. She did community service. Her child was frightened of the police, worried that he'd be taken away or that she would be, all for five minutes in a car parked in front of a store.

One freezing day a few winters ago, Aaron Gouveia went to the supermarket. He didn't usually have the baby with him on Wednesdays, but this Wednesday, the relative who usually cared for the baby wasn't available, so Mr. Gouveia carted the baby along with him. Only, he forgot that the baby was in the car and went in to the store. It was only because he had left his shopping list that he went back out to the car, and when he got there, he saw his son sitting in his car seat. "...a missing grocery list was the only thing that prevented me and my son from becoming a headline," Mr. Gouveia writes. Thankfully, neither father nor son was harmed by this frightening event.

These three stories have made the rounds on Facebook and were published in major media outlets recently. Reports about kids being left in cars, either intentionally or accidentally, emerge every spring and summer, as we hear of one, two, a dozen kids overheating to death in cars. According to, an average of 38 children die in hot cars each year in the United States. (It happens in other countries, too.) That is both a very small and a very large number. Another way to look at it is, about every 10 days, a child dies from being left in a hot car. Every 10 days. And this number doesn't take into account the (probably very large) number of kids who are briefly forgotten, like Mr. Gouveia's son, and unharmed, or intentionally left in a relatively safe environment, like Ms. Brooks' son, and unharmed, or intentionally left in a potentially dangerous situation but rescued before tragedy could strike, like Ms. Taylor's sons.

Ms. Taylor's and Ms. Brooks' stories, especially, speak to me. We can go on all day about how to avoid forgetting your child in the car. I have written on this topic, as have numerous other bloggers recently. We can educate about how quickly cars heat up, discuss the symptoms of heatstroke and hyperthermia, and ask that if you notice a child left alone in the car, you do something to help.

But here's where it gets tricky. How do we decide when a child needs help and when he doesn't? How do we decide when our phone call or intervention is truly saving a life and when it's causing more turmoil than not interfering would have? How do we know whether that child was forgotten or intentionally left? How do we know whether the parent is being neglectful or has simply decided that, in this instance, the child is safe enough alone for five minutes? 

I never want to be a busybody. I never want to assume that another parent is wrong. I never want to interfere. But I also don't want to see babies dying in cars because they were genuinely forgotten or neglectfully abandoned. 

Some would say that if you ever, under any circumstance, see a baby alone in a car, you should immediately call the police. Others might say you should hang around for five minutes and see if a parent returns, or see if you can find the caregiver. Some might stand beside the car and wait for an adult to return. Some might assess the situation - Where is the car? Is it a hot or freezing cold day? Is the child really at risk? - and make a decision accordingly.

I think there are clear circumstances where a call to 911 is warranted. If it's especially hot or cold, if the child is clearly in distress (sweaty, crying or unresponsive), and especially if the car is parked somewhere that is unlikely to be a quick errand, it is probably best to err on the side of caution and make that call. After all, that could very well be the call that saves that child's life. For example, a car parked at a private office building probably belongs to someone who works there, whereas a car parked in front of a grocery store means that the adult is most likely just quickly running in to grab something. If you happen to know that the car has been parked there for a long time, or if you see that the child in the car appears to be in distress, then a call to 911 is probably wise. On the other hand, if the child is not really in peril - it's not sunny or hot or especially cold, the child looks comfortable, the car is right in front of the store, you saw the parent go in and wait a few minutes and see them come back out - your call to 911 might just cause the family more problems than they would have had if you'd just left them alone, as in Ms. Brooks' case.

It can be tough to know what constitutes neglect. How old is old enough to be left alone in a car? In a house? To walk home from school? How young is too young to walk over to the neighbor's house unaccompanied? To ride bikes on the sidewalk in front of the house? To play in the backyard unsupervised? 

As for Ms. Taylor's case, her kids were in genuine danger by the time she exited the job interview. Her decision to leave them in the car was made consciously - it wasn't an instance of forgetfulness. She may not have realized how long the interview would take, or how hot the car would get. I personally believe she made the wrong decision, and had she not come out when she did, and had a passerby not called 911, her sons could very well have overheated in that hot car. However, is it felony-level child abuse or simply a case of temporary lapse of judgment? I don't think jailing her and taking her kids away is going to in any way improve her or their lot in life, and surely there is a better solution. But, at the same time, it's important to send the message that, yes, this was a poor decision and her children were on the brink of serious harm.

In Ms. Brooks' case, her child was in no danger for the five minutes she was gone, and whoever took that video and alerted the police after Ms. Brooks had already left was simply wrong. I don't understand behaving that way, interfering in someone else's life like that.

How long is too long for a child to be left intentionally? Is there a difference between five minutes and 10 or 15? Is half an hour too long? An hour? I don't know how you decide something like that. I think a lot depends on the weather conditions, the location, visibility, presence of other families. Is the weather comfortable? Is it a high-crime area? Can the parent likely see the car from wherever they are? It's not something you can paint in black and white.

It is our job as a community of parents to protect all children, but it is also our job to support and honor other parents and their decisions. Kids left alone in cars is a hot topic, and rightly so, because of these 38+ incidents a year, because of stories like Ms. Taylor's, because some people honestly don't know how quickly cars heat up and how hot they can get, and because people don't understand how easy it is to forget that your baby is in the car with you. But we can take it too far. We can ruin a good parent's life by interfering when not necessary. We can cause more problems than we solve when we overstep boundaries and put our judgments on others' parenting choices. 

So, yes, please call for help if you see a child in danger. Please save lives by peeking into empty cars and checking for forgotten children. But please also use discretion and common sense. Is it really a dangerous situation? Is the child likely to overheat or freeze? Does the child appear to be suffering? Is it likely that the caregiver will return to the car shortly? There's no reason to be malicious or holier-than-thou. There's no need to troll parking lots looking to get someone in trouble.

Let's err on the side of kindness, the side of support, the side of looking out for each other. Let's help kids who genuinely need help but not punish parents who may have a different style. Let's assume a child's parent made the same risk assessment we did and made their decision based on good intentions, not ignorance or neglect.

I hope that one day, if my child is truly in trouble when I'm not there to help, some kind stranger will know the right thing to do and help my son. And I hope that one day, if I'm in a position to save a child, I will know the right thing to do to help someone else's son. And at the same time, I hope others give me the benefit of the doubt if I make a decision different from what they might have done and not jump to conclusions about my fitness as a parent.

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