Should Leaving Children in Cars Lead to Jail Time or Loss of Custody?

A lot can happen in five minutes. Consider this scenario: A toddler is sleeping in the back seat. Her mother runs off to the store for five minutes. The car is parked in the shade and it’s a cool day.

child neglect left in a carThe child wakes up and finds a small crowd gathered around the vehicle. Strange people are taking pictures with their phones. Mommy tries to save her, but a man in a blue uniform takes Mommy away. The toddler screams and cries as strangers open the car and kidnap her. The toddler is taken to offices and daycares. The little girl is frightened and just wants to go home with her mom.

Most good Samaritans who see children left alone in vehicles take down the license number, call the police, and drive away after the officer arrives. They usually don’t see what happens after the arrest is made and the child is taken. So let me fill in the blanks:

If the parent is charged with child neglect or one of the numerous variations, the parent will be in jail until bail is posted. Depending on the state and county, the case might be heard in juvenile or criminal court. The child is either taken home if there is a caretaker or to protective services. If the parent has the money, the parent can hire a criminal defense attorney. If not, the parent risks significant jail time and losing custody of the child.

Let that sink in for a second. Leaving your child in the car could result in losing custody of the child. Most comments online are along the lines of “Good. Doesn’t deserve to be a parent.” Obviously there isn’t a lot of sympathy for the parents of these children, but I urge readers to consider the children inside the system.

A young child doesn’t know anything about the risks of a hot car or abductions. The toddler is probably sleeping in the back seat or playing with a toy. The toddler only knows her parents were taken away. Removing a toddler from the custody of her parents will mentally and emotionally scar a child for life. Being dragged through the system, even briefly, can emotionally harm a child.

In some cases, removing a child from the custody of a parent is the correct answer. But those situations should be rare. In benign situations like leaving a child in a car, the process and the end game will psychologically damage the children. It is extremely ironic that we protect children from potential physical harm by inflicting emotional pain on them.

What’s Best for the Child Is What’s Best for Society

Leaving a child alone in a car can be dangerous. Children have died when left unattended in an overheated car. And there have been a few cases where parents intentionally leave their children in the car to die. It’s good that we live in a world where people are watching out for kids. However, sending all children and harmless parents through the criminal justice does not help the children. Like the “war on drugs,” society cannot use criminal sanctions to punish otherwise harmless behavior. The results will be horrifying and will have a long impact on society.

Children can be removed from the custody of parents if the parent leaves the child unattended in a car because of prosecutors’ discretion. Prosecutors have the authority to decide what type of crime they can charge defendants with. If a parent leaves a child in a car unattended, the prosecutor can bring a charge of child endangerment. In many states, child endangerment can be a misdemeanor or a felony. If the charge is a felony, the child can be removed from the defendant’s custody.

The problem is that that kind of punishment for a minor incident is absolutely absurd. A small fine or an order to attend parenting classes should be sufficient. There should be enough punishment to send a message that children can die if left unattended, but not so severe that the family itself is threatened. Children can and do die if left unattended in a car. However, going over the speed limit could also potentially put the child’s life in danger. Yet nobody in their right mind would approve of removing child custody over a speeding ticket.

If hardened criminals deserve proportional justice, then new parents should also have punishments that fit the crime. Instead of treating these cases like child molestation, these cases should be at the level of traffic tickets.

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