Leaving a Child Alone in the Car for a Minute: I've Done It

When Levy was in preschool and Jack was just a tiny baby, I pulled into the preschool parking lot on a very cold, snowy and icy morning to pick her up. The car was toasty warm and he was snoozing contentedly in her carseat in the back. I got out, locked the car doors, and dashed in quick to get Levy, something I had done before without thinking about it. It was so cold, and I knew I would wake Jack up if I took him out of the car. I had snagged a spot right by the door, so I could almost maintain eye contact with the car the entire time I was inside. Once inside Levy's teacher asked where Jack was since I had him with me when I dropped her off, and I explained that with the nasty weather I just let him snooze in the car for a minute rather than bring him in for the two seconds it took to get Levy. "Oh no, no, don't do that, a mom got arrested for doing that not long ago, it's not allowed," she told me, her voice full of concern, not judgment. Arrested?! Visions of me getting handcuffed and put into the back of a police car while my two small children were taken away jumped into my head and it was jarring to say the least.

Before I go any further, let me just say that I would not, and never have, willfully neglected my children in any serious way. Have I brushed them off while I was on the phone? Sure. Have I told them to scram when I needed a few seconds to myself to actually use the bathroom? Absolutely. Have I left them in the (locked) car while I ran in to put a letter in the post office mailbox? Yes, I have. Why? Well the last time I remember doing it I think the reason was I was running late and I quickly weighed my options, do I take all of the kids out of the car for the fifteen step walk it would take to slide the letter into the slot inside the tiny post office, which I was parked in front of, that also had windows through which I could see my car? Or do I hop out of the car, lock it, dash in, slide the letter in and dash back out, taking up WAY less time than if I had to wake up and unbuckle everyone? I chose the dash in and dash out. We all most likely are NOT in agreement on doing this however, and I realize that. All parents are different, and what might be okay behavior for some is not okay with others. I get that. For me though, I'm okay with the quick dash in and dash out.

Now, also let me say that I think child abuse and neglect is extremely serious, and something that should never, ever be taken lightly, not in any circumstance. We have all heard the horror stories about children being left in hot cars, either intentionally or by accident, and that, I believe, is a separate issue from the one I'm talking about. I have read countless heartbreaking stories of parents who have simply forgotten to drop a child off, for whatever innocent reason, and the child winds up dying. But that is not what I'm talking about today.

What I want to ask is, would you classify leaving a sleeping child in a locked car for a matter of a couple minutes child neglect? It's an honest question, and again, one that we might not all agree on. Let's say the car is a comfortable, safe temperature, the area around the car is safe by all accounts, the car is off and locked, you have checked on the child before doing the quick run in, and you know you will only be in and out in just a few minutes? Is that neglect? In my opinion, it's not. And if it is, I'm guilty of that type of neglect as well.

Just this week, a woman in Saratoga Springs was charged with endangering the welfare of a child after leaving her 6-month-old infant unattended at Saratoga Springs Public Library. She had left her cellphone in the library which she had just come from and left the baby in the car while she ran in to get it, the baby was unharmed, and according to reports she was gone for approximately 3 minutes. Two police cars came, handcuffed the woman, who was crying, and took her into custody. Just to clarify, I was not present when this happened, and my information is based on local news reports, so I can't really give any further back history or information besides this.

Now, the second question I ask you is, did you know that this was actually against the law? If the preschool teacher hadn't told me, I would not have known. In fact, a bill was only recently passed in 2012 in New York state making it illegal for parents or guardians to leave children under the age of 8 alone in a motor vehicle. Multiple infractions constitute a misdemeanor.

The bill applies to any person legally charged with care of a child and states that they cannot be left alone or with anyone under the age of 12, “under conditions which would knowingly or recklessly present a significant risk to the health or safety of the child.” Opponents of the bill argue that it doesn’t differentiate between parents who leave a child in a car for a few minutes while they run into a grocery store to get milk and drug addicts who leave their vehicle to buy narcotics and completely forget the child was with them.

According to the bill, studies show that when outdoor temperatures range from 72 to 96 degrees, the temperature inside of a vehicle rises approximately 19 degrees in the first ten minutes, 29 degrees after 20 minutes, 34 degrees after 30 minutes and 43 degrees after 60 minutes.

The legislation cites data from the journal Pediatrics that shows between 1998 and 2004, 230 children in the United States died of hyperthermia — overheating — from being left in cars. Those victims were all 15 or younger. In 2005, there were 19 deaths by mid-summer for the same reason and simply cracking the windows has little effect on the interior temperature. Again, I have to reiterate, I think this type of neglect is very serious and in no way, shape, or form do I think that it should be overlooked. I also think that educating people about this type of danger, as well as the danger it poses to pets left in cars as well, is extremely important. It also needs to be pointed out that experts now warn against letting your baby sleep for any extended period of time in their carseat because it may hinder their breathing.

However, heat was not an issue on Tuesday in this instance. Nor did the woman leave the child in the car for even as long as five minutes according to reports. I'm not going to link this piece to the Saratoga Wire article or the Saratogian article, which also names the mom who was charged, because I'm sure she wouldn't want her name being further brought up along with the idea that she had "neglected" her baby and again I don't have any further information or back story to help fill in any questions people might have. I don't know this woman, but I do want her to know that I myself, writer of a local parenting website, have done this, on more than one occasion. So you are not alone. It isn't something I will continue to do in the future because I'm aware of this new law, but it is something I will readily admit to doing in the past (before it was made into an actual law, so NO I did not break the law).

Before you write a comment, let me just say that for those of you that would NEVER leave your child in a car for even a second alone, there most likely are things that YOU do that other parents would NEVER DO either. That's the thing about parenting, we all make our own different choices and it is extremely difficult to get into right and wrong with so many gray areas. Is it a possibility that the window could get smashed and the child could be snatched out of the car? Anything is possible. So is the possibility that you could get run over in the parking lot after taking your child out of the car. There are no hard and fast statistics or stories I could find on the occurrence of children being abducted from locked cars while their parents dashed in somewhere for a minute, so I can't put that out there as a deterrent any more than the number of fatal car accidents while driving to wherever you are going acts as a deterrent. One might argue that it is not necessary to leave your child in the car, while it might be necessary to drive to where you need to go, and that is valid, but to those of you who never EVER EVER cut ANY corners while parenting whatsoever, let you be the only ones to pass judgment.

Sometimes being a mom, especially being a new mom, can seem like a minefield of new information that sometimes changes week to week. Things are recalled, parenting techniques are applauded and then quickly dissected and called flawed. One family might happily co-sleep while another family might argue that co-sleeping is dangerous and poses a risk of SIDS. One mom might bottle feed while another mom might claim that "formula is poison". You might have the best intentions of keeping your child safe only to discover that you are actually doing something illegal or something that your neighbor might frown upon. Again, we are all different, and things that seem crazy to you might not be so crazy to someone else. Would you ever let your baby sleep outside a restaurant in the cold while you eat your lunch with a friend? These moms would, in a major city no less.

My intention for sharing this story is not to pass judgment on this mom, or moms who fall into the category of the dash in dash out type (like myself). Nor is it to pass judgment on moms who would never consider doing a dash in dash out, either. As I said, everyone has their own way of parenting and what might work for you might not work for another family. So no name calling in the comments, no saying this woman was "lazy" for not just taking her baby out of the car to get her cellphone, none of that. I simply wanted to let you guys know that it is, in fact, illegal, and it could happen to you, or me, if we leave our kids in the car alone even for just a minute. Let's take this as an educational opportunity and most of all just be supportive of each other.