Car Alone

There is no shortage of stories about a parent going into a bar while leaving a child alone in a car.  This is one such story.

INDIANAPOLIS – A woman was arrested after police said she left her two children alone in an unlocked, running car while she went into a bar to get a beer Sunday evening.

Police were called to John Wayne’s Pub & Eatery in the 2300 block of East Stop 11 Road after a concerned person called for a welfare check on two children left alone in a car.

When police arrived, they found a 1-year-old and 9-year-old alone in the back seat of an unlocked Volkswagen Beetle.

Denise Shannon, who will not win mother of the year, didn’t see the problem. Then again, she was drunk.  And she left the engine running.  Few will argue that it was wrong to arrest her for endangering the welfare of her children.

But New Jersey Superior Court Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. had no issue with the conviction of another mother whose child was left in a car.

In ruling against a mother who left her toddler strapped in a car seat while she shopped, a state appeals court said today that leaving a young child alone in a vehicle — even briefly — is abuse or neglect.

The case originated in 2009 when the woman, identified in court papers only by the pseudonym Eleanor, left her car running with her sleeping 19-month-old inside for five to 10 minutes while she shopped for party supplies at the Middlesex Mall in South Plainfield.

By the time she returned to the vehicle, the police had arrived and the mother of four was arrested.

Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids notes that this was once common practice.  She was left in the car by her mother. I was left in the car by mine. For people of a certain age, this was just how it was done. Not because mommy was in a bar getting drunk, but for more pedestrian reasons. It just wasn’t a big deal.  Not today.

“A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly,” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote for the three-judge panel.

He cited the risk of “car theft or kidnapping” and the possibility that “on a hot day, the temperature inside a motor vehicle can quickly spike to dangerously high levels, just as it may rapidly and precipitously dip on a cold night.”

Skenazy explains the mindset behind this rationale:

This is what’s called “Worst-First Thinking” — coming up with the worst-case scenarios first and proceeding as if they were likely to happen.

But if we start using “Worst-First” as the basis for prosecuting parents, shouldn’t we go after any mom who puts her kid in the car, period? After all, what if she careens off the road? What if she’s hit by a drunk driver? These may not be likely, but they certainly are possible, so why let any parent take that kind of risk?

The notion is that we can imagine all manner of horrible scenarios if we squint a bit, divorce the particulars of a case from its facts, and listen closely for the sound of zebra hoofs beating the turf.

Let’s consider some facts. Every year, more than 1200 children under age 15 are killed in car accidents. Meantime, about 50 are kidnapped and murdered by strangers (generally not after being snatched from vehicles), and about 35-40 die of overheating in cars, the vast majority after having been forgotten there all day, NOT after waiting out a 10-minute errand.

Granted, this is an example of the dangers of statistics gone rogue, but her point is that the risks associated with a child left in a car are miniscule, while the risks associated with conduct that no one would think to criminalize are substantially greater.  If we’re going to play the game of “what if” with children’s welfare, then at least do so with some relation to reality, to things that present real risks rather than extreme outlier fears.

This isn’t to argue that parents should not do what they can to avoid risks to their children’s welfare, even if they are relatively far-fetched.  Not leaving a kid in the car alone just isn’t that hard to do, and for the most part, parents aren’t inclined to do it.  That’s both fine and good, as it should be.

But this isn’t a matter of parenting “best practices,” but whether the failure to adhere to a bubble-wrapped vision of child-rearing forms the basis for criminal prosecution, for inclusion on the child-abuse registry, for loss of civil rights, perhaps career, home and even the right to remain parent to a child.

To put in context, Skenazy’s mother would be a criminal today. Mine too. And if you’re a bit younger, then your grandmother is likely a dangerous felon, who was just lucky not to get caught.

This isn’t to say that endangering the welfare of a child doesn’t exist or happen. Clearly, it does, and it doesn’t require a bright line test of how many beers are acceptable while the babies sit in the Volkswagen.  But the knee-jerk reaction to a child alone in a car for any length of time for any reason today, that the parent has not only made a poor choice, but a criminal one, takes the nanny-ism aspect of the perfect world to a place that does far more harm than good.

Is it really the case that the children in New Jersey would be better off in foster care, losing their mother?  Regardless of what happens, this is a possible outcome of conviction, and it’s far worse for the children than anything the mother did.  And I fully anticipate that a great many reading this will believe that the New Jersey mother was terribly wrong and deserves a conviction, because its “for the children.”  Think it through harder, because it’s not.

H/T Walter Olson at Overlawyered

12 thoughts on “Car Alone

  1. John Burgess

    Oh, the list of acts that were once seen as safe that are now criminal. I’m sure all of us over a certain age would have been in several different foster homes — after foster parents had been arrested, too –had today’s laws then been on the books.

    This seems like just another application of zero-tolerance laws that preclude the use of reason and thus absolve the bureaucrat from having to take any personal responsibility. The decision tree is made binary; the line is bright and you fall on one side or the other.

    Perhaps jury nullification needs to become better known.

    1. SHG Post author

      Jury nullification? If it was up to a jury today, they would impose death. We keep forgetting that the norm doesn’t favor thinking and put way too much stock in the sensibilities of the average juror.

  2. Turk

    “A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly,” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote for the three-judge panel.

    Where do I turn myself in?

  3. Pingback: Letting child wait in car a few minutes - Overlawyered

  4. Brett Middleton

    Seems to me that just the grief that family must have gone through between the incident and the conviction was worse for the kids than anything the mother did, much less what they went through in the ensuing years. Even if the mother had been acquitted, the drain on time, reputation, and financial resources must have been devastating.

    1. SHG Post author

      Rarely does anyone give thought to the harm done to the child they’re trying to save. Ruining children’s lives to save them for the perfect world.

  5. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    To put in context, Skenazy’s mother would be a criminal today. Mine too. And if you’re a bit younger, then your grandmother is likely a dangerous felon, who was just lucky not to get caught.

    My parents and forebears would be felons at a rate of about 3 felonies a minute. Luckily, I and most of my generation survived to tell our story.

    What I find interesting about recent decades’ criminalization of perfectly ordinary acts is that I’ve never encountered any ordinary citizens (alone or in organized groups) that actually support such inane and corrosive laws (or interpretations of older laws). I’ve heard and read plenty of government officials’ excuses for them, but never any actual popular support.

    Where is the army of concerned citizens lobbying legislators in support of such laws, or supporting extension of definitions (such as criminal child neglect) to include briefly not being in sight of one’s child?

    Are legislators, police and courts merely saying “we are doing it just because we can”?

    1. SHG Post author

      Then I have some bad news to report. The Star Ledger article had a poll on the sidebar about whether people thought the decision was right or wrong. When I checked earlier, it was at 61-39% in favor of the court having made the right decision. The silent majority lives.

  6. Pingback: Baby’s fine, mom’s a criminal | Captain Mommy

  7. Jim Majkowski

    The cited appellate decision did not affirm a criminal conviction. The NJ agency in May of 2009 started some sort of neglect proceeding against the mother, but it was (per the opinion) dismissed and further “intervention” ended September 3, 2009, about four months after the incident. The appeal was from an agency decision not to grant an evidentiary hearing as to whether what was done was “wrong.” Why the decision came down more than four years after the supervision ended, I wouldn’t venture to guess; maybe someone with expertise in NJ neglect law could educate us.

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