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The GEM Debate: Five Minutes Alone In A Car: Is It A Crime?


Creative Commons/Mikol

The GEM Debate:
Five Minutes Alone In A Car: Is It A Crime?

Have you ever left your child alone in a car on a mild day for five minutes while you run into a convenience store? If you have, you’re not alone, but this story will make you rethink that choice.

Kim Brooks was flying home from visiting family and she was running late. She was in the process of packing when she realized her 4-year-old son’s headphones were broken. Her 1-year-old daughter was sleeping, so Brooks decided to leave the kids with her mother, whose home she was visiting.

Brooks’s son wanted to go, too, but by the time she had driven over to the strip mall, he changed his mind about going in. After a short back-and-forth, Brooks made a decision that would seal her fate for the next two years. She writes for Salon:

I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I’ve been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.

He didn’t die. He wasn’t kidnapped or assaulted or forgotten or dragged across state lines by a carjacker. When I returned to the car, he was still playing his game, smiling, or more likely smirking at having gotten what he wanted from his spineless mama. I tossed the headphones onto the passenger seat and put the keys in the ignition.

A concerned citizen noticed that Brooks’s son was by himself and used a camera phone to capture the incident and report her to the police. By the time police figured out who she was and tracked her down, she was mid-flight. A police car was in her mother’s driveway when she got home from taking Brooks and her children to the airport. Brooks ended up hiring a lawyer, whom she thought smoothed things with the officer, but nine months later, things were not resolved. Another police officer informed her that there was a warrant out for her arrest.

Her case went to court and Brooks was advised to plead guilty because, if she did not, her kids could potentially be taken away from her. The prosecutor issued a continuance and agreed not to pursue charges as long as Brooks completed 100 hours of community service, which she did.

Related: The GEM Debate: Should A Mother Have The Right To Take Her Child Even Under These Conditions?

Was it a mistake for Brooks to leave her son in the car? Given the outcome and the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, of course it was. I just don’t know if her actions rose to the level of a crime that should upend her life—and her family’s, by extension—for two years.

Reasonable parents don’t leave their kids in cars in 90-degree weather while they do extended shopping at Target. But, sometimes, reasonable parents do leave napping kids in cars in cool weather for a few minutes while they run into small establishments like pizza joints or gas stations. I think it’s disingenuous to conflate the two and treat them as equal circumstances.

No, we don’t want parents to leave children unattended in cars as a matter of course. While I certainly understand the reasons behind laws that protect kids in this way, I also think a healthy dose of common sense and dealing with these incidents on a case-by-case basis is probably a better use of the limited time and resources of police, social workers, and prosecutors.

Related: The GEM Debate: Should Severely Obese Children Be Taken Into Care?

What do you think? Is it always a crime to leave kids unattended in cars? Share your thoughts below.

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