Is it Okay to Leave Your Kids Alone in the Car While You Run In Somewhere?

Thank you to Lenore Skenazy, author of the book and blog Free Range Kids, for this guest post.

A Suburban Crime Wave

One mother is hauled off to the police station. Another is clapped in handcuffs. The mothers’ offenses? They let their kids wait in the car while they ran a quick errand.

Yes, these moms did just what yours probably did back when you were a kid. That age-old practice has been criminalized in 19 states in recent years, thanks to a world that seems increasingly unable to distinguish between negligence and normal parenting.

The laws differ in their particulars, but basically they state that a child under age 6, 7 or, in Utah, 9, cannot be left alone in the car for more than 5 or 10 minutes. In Nebraska, having your 6-year-old wait in the car is an offense in the same category as allowing the child to be “deprived of necessary food” or “sexually exploited.” In Louisiana, a second kid-in-car infraction carries a sentence of not less than one year in prison, “with or without hard labor.” That’ll certainly make the kids safer—having mom or dad off breaking rocks in prison.

The impulse behind these laws is not evil, just excessive. Many people and politicians—I suppose the categories overlap—believe that whenever children are left alone in a car they could easily die of heat exhaustion or be kidnapped.

While the kidnapping fear is beyond absurd (doubters, please look up the stats), the heatstroke fear is based on the fact that cars do get hot. Just not in the time it takes to buy a gallon of milk. A San Francisco State University study showed a car’s interior heating up 43 degrees in an hour. A less alarming study by the Animal Protection Institute showed temperatures 10 degrees hotter inside than outside after five hours. Either way, each year about 40 children die of hyperthermia in automobiles.

But according to a group that tracks these statistics, (“Love Them, Protect Them”), the overwhelming majority were either forgotten in the car for hours (54%) or climbed into an empty vehicle without anyone’s knowledge and got stuck (31%). This, in a country with 32 million children under the age of 8 taking billions of car trips annually. Any child’s death is a terrible tragedy. But the reflexive call to 911 the minute a child is spied alone in a car is lunacy. Why not wait a minute to see if the parent comes back?

At my blog, Free-Range Kids, I have heard over the past few years, almost monthly, from bewildered parents who have found themselves being treated like criminals. I won’t use their names because, well, they were humiliated (if you think most mug shots look bad, try one of a mother freshly dragged away from her children).

A typical story is the one I heard about from a mother of two who lives in a small town near Utica, N.Y. Last summer, on a 69-degree night, she ran into a grocery store to get some chicken breasts at 6:54(she had just spoken to her husband on her cellphone). In the car she left her 5-year-old girl and 6-month old boy, who was asleep.

At 7:03 (it’s on record) a passerby called 911. Then he pulled a truck behind her car so she couldn’t drive away—which she dearly wanted to do when she emerged from the store moments later. Instead, she had to wait for the police.

The officer, rather than informing the busybody stranger that he shouldn’t prevent the free movement of citizens, told the mother that she was in big trouble. He searched her purse for dangerous objects. Then she had to call her parents to come get the kids, because the cop was taking her to the police station. Her daughter cried as she left.

After that? Three visits from child-protective services to her home. The workers found nothing amiss, but “they have told me if it ever happens again, they will move the courts to have my children placed in foster care,” she said.

Then there was the Oregon mother who realized that she had forgotten to pack her daughter’s life vest as they were leaving for a day at a lake. She parked the car and ran in to retrieve the life vest because—irony alert—she is such a responsible mom. In the couple of minutes she was gone, a police officer noticed the car. She said she was handcuffed, searched, photographed and investigated by child-protective services. But at least she didn’t end up in jail.

Is it really safer to drag kids out of a car, across a busy parking lot, or alongside the street as you rush back home for a kid-sized life vest? The law says yes. Common sense says no. These laws are making criminals out of ordinary people doing ordinary activities that have an infinitesimal chance of ending badly. Except, that is, for the parents.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of Free-Range Kids and TV host of “World’s Worst Mom” on Discovery/TLC International. Her website is Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2013. Originally published on Mothering in March 2014. Photo credit: Getty Images

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