Let me start with this: I’ve left my kids unattended in a car before and, in retrospect, still don’t think I was wrong.
Back in the day, you’d run in to pay the gas station attendant and leave the kids in the car or pop into the pharmacy, the dry cleaners or the convenience store.
Usually, I took the kids in with me (I have four), but when I didn’t, it was a decision I made as a parent based on circumstances.
This would have been in the late 1990s, a mild day during the cooler months (I don’t recall which month). I remember my twin boys, perhaps 8 months old, were asleep in their car seats and I needed milk. Having both asleep at once was not something to trifle with. I parked my van by the entrance, cracked the window, ran in for 10 minutes and returned to them still sleeping.
Like millions of others, I have been tuned into the case of Ross Harris, the Cobb County father charged with leaving his 22-month son to die in a sweltering car while Harris was inside working.
Whether he did it on purpose will one day be determined. Either way, it’s a terrible tragedy and a stark reminder of the danger of changing a routine and accidentally leaving your baby to suffer in the elements.
Since the blockbuster Harris court hearing on July 3, metro-area police have fielded numerous calls and arrested at least eight people for leaving kids in cars.
The arrests have been outside stores that represent our love of cars and convenience. Two Walmarts, a Michaels, a Lowe’s, a Target, a Kroger, a Publix and a CVS. There was also a courthouse.
The cases (I’m sure I missed some) represent a sea change in how society views quick pop-ins to stores and even honest mistakes. What years ago may have been met with a raised eye, a wagging finger or even a knowing nod is now met with handcuffs and public shame.
Is leaving your kid in the car always bad?
Don’t get me wrong, leaving your kid in closed-up, sun-baked car is idiotic. And those calling the cops see themselves as Good Samaritans. But is leaving your kid in a car always bad? And is it a crime?
Lenore Skenazy, a New York mom and writer who runs the website Free Range Kids, said Americans have lost all perspective, lumping all cases of kids left in cars as Very Bad!
“We have decided we’re not making any distinctions between a 5-minute errand and five hours being left in the desert without a sippy cup,” said Skenazy, who has been writing about this for years.
“They don’t die when you’re getting a pizza or getting stamps,’’ Skenazy said. “If it’s boiling out or the errand will take 45 minutes or it’s an extremely dangerous neighborhood, take your kid in with you.
“But let’s get back some perspective that parents who left their kids in a car made a rational decision based on circumstances and that they love their children more than you love their children.”
She terms it “worst first” thinking – the habit of our culture to automatically envision the worst possibility in a situation, no matter how remote that possibility may be.
‘Don’t tell me how to be a parent’
Kids dying in cars of heat stroke is horrific, but also extremely rare. San Francisco State University studies heat-related deaths of children in cars and determined an annual average of 38, with 51 percent coming from a child being forgotten by an adult and 29 percent from kids playing in unattended vehicles.
The first two tips on the university’s web page — in red, all capital letters:
NEVER LEAVE A CHILD UNATTENDED IN A VEHICLE. NOT EVEN FOR A MINUTE and IF YOU SEE A CHILD UNATTENDED IN A HOT VEHICLE CALL 911.
People are dialing. Last month, Melissa Mae Jackson, 39, of Marietta, stopped at a Lowe’s in Sandy Springs to return an item. A man and woman passing by saw a 2-year-old girl with her hands on the windows, crying. They went inside to tell the store manager. Jackson, who was at the counter, overheard the woman, returned to her car, got the girl and went back inside to finish her business, the police report says.
The woman confronted Jackson, who said, “Don’t tell me how to be a parent.” Jackson left, but cell phone photos of her car and license plate led to her arrest later on.
Police Capt. Steve Rose said Jackson was charged with reckless conduct instead of the more serious cruelty to children. “In our case, it was like five minutes,” he said. “But five minutes in a car when it’s 86 is too long.”
He said the Cobb tragedy has caused many more instances to be reported. This summer, a cop broke a car window to retrieve a dog in a hot car.
“I wonder how we got to the top of the food chain with how people act,” he said.
Years ago, “you’d run up to the front of a store, run in and get a gallon of milk,” he said, adding those days are largely gone with the shift in public opinion.
‘It’s like an umpire making a call’
I suppose it’s like helmets on kids riding bikes. None of us would ever be caught dead wearing them, but now letting them ride without protective gear is akin to letting toddlers play in traffic.
In Fayetteville, Courtney B. Tabor was arrested on misdemeanor counts of leaving a minor unattended after she left three babies in her running Honda Odyssey minivan (the AC was on) in a store parking lot so she could get out and grab a smoke.
Lt. Mike Whitlow said employees of the Michaels watched the van for several minutes and Tabor didn’t reappear until the cops arrived.
“There’s stopping and stepping out to get a smoke and there’s stopping and being 50 yards away,” he said. “It seems every day you hear of a car that gets carjacked and the kids get dumped out because they don’t want the kids.”
It does happen but it is rare.
Whitlow said the officer wrote the tickets “to make sure this didn’t happen again with this lady.”
“It’s a very fine line to walk for us,” he said. “It’s like an umpire making a call.”
‘(She) loves her children more than anything’
While most arrests came from people running into stores, there was one near tragedy earlier this month that resulted in felony charges for a 26-year-old Cumming woman. In that case, Amber Sue Adams, a mother of four, forgot her 11-month old daughter in her car seat while she took her three other children into a Walmart to shop for school supplies.
After nearly an hour in the store in the late afternoon, Adams looked in, and to her horror saw her daughter’s hand waving in her car seat. The child was treated and released that night from a hospital.
Adams told police she forgot the child because her mother, not her, had placed the girl in the car seat before heading to the store and she got distracted with the others.
“Amber loves her children more than anything else in the world,” said her attorney, Peter Zeliff. “She was never as low as she was that day. She’s her own biggest critic.”
DFACS checked the kids and decided “they are healthy, happy and well-cared-for,” said Zeliff.
Now the Forsyth County justice system must determine whether the mom is also a felon.