On Trial for Letting Kids Wait in the Car — It’s “Child Endangerment”

Hi Readers. Here’s the latest kids-in-car/mom-arrested story.  I know it seems like I’ve posted a flood of these cases lately and I’ll pause for a bit after this one, but this woman is asking for support and I’d like to provide some.

As you’ll see, it’s strange that somehow her 3-year-old got out of the car — that’s certainly something to look out for — but should she have been investigated by Child Protective Services? Should she have to go to court? Is she an irresponsible parent? No way. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I have found you through researching issues related to child endangerment.  I have been charged with second degree child endangerment, in Arkansas, for leaving a sleeping baby and a three-year-old locked in a warm minivan on a cold day for under five minutes.

This happened in December.  I immediately hired an attorney, who explained that I hadn’t actually violated the statute, and so was not guilty.  Then, in February, I was visited by a child protective services worker.  He toured my home, and asked me questions about the incident.  I figured he was following protocol and that he would close the case.

Today I received a letter stating that I will be placed on a child maltreatment list, and that my employer may be notified, unless I request an administrative hearing, and at that hearing they overrule the family service worker’s opinion. Here is the source of all this mess:

On December 16, a Friday, which is my day off, I was driving with my two youngest children.  Benjamin is my baby, and Aurora is my three-year-old.  We had just met up with May, my six-year-old, for lunch at her elementary school.  I remembered suddenly that this was the last day I could buy a gift for May’s first grade teacher.

We were in a touristy and safe part of town, very close to the math and science school at which I work.  Benjamin had a bronchial cough, and Aurora was eating cookies (messy), and didn’t want to leave the van.

I considered the cold air outside, the baby’s cough, Aurora’s messy face and hands.  I figured that the time it would take to get the children out of the van and back into the van would be nearly twice the time it would take to just run into the shop myself.  They were both locked in their car seats.  I parked as close to the shop as I could get, locked the car from the outside, double checked the lock, literally ran into the store, grabbed two items without checking the price, checked out with no wait, since I was the only customer, and ran out of the store.

There I found two police officers standing with Aurora outside of the van, with the van’s sliding door open.  When they saw me running toward them, one of them shouted to get back, and not to touch my daughter.  He said “Sit your butt down!” so I sat on the pavement.  Aurora, who had been calmly talking to them, was upset by their treatment of me.  Finally, they let her come to me, and I held her.  The officers claimed that they stopped because they saw her standing outside.  This seemed really unlikely to me, but I figure it must be true, because how else would the door have been unlocked?  Inside, the baby still slept.  They cited me but did not call child protective services, and did not arrest me.

At the hearing my lawyer appeared and entered a not guilty plea.  A trial was set for February 4.

At that trial, the judge said immediately, “Didn’t I just see a case like this earlier this morning?”  The “similar” case was one in which a parent left children alone in a Walmart parking lot while he cashed a check inside.  My attorney started explaining that my facts were different, that the time was much less.  Then my attorney mistakenly said I left only one child waiting.  The prosecutor pounced, saying, “No, it was two children, on Central Avenue, and one was only six months old!!”

My attorney asked for a continuance.  The next date is April 5.

Since then, my attorney has changed his strategy from arguing for my innocence to making deals with the prosecutor.  He insists on waiting until the court date to show her my acceptance letter to the University of Texas Law School (I had applied when the incident happened, but I found out I was accepted right after attending that Feb. 4 trial).  He expresses doubt that she will be helpful, and he doesn’t seem to want to argue before the judge.

So I have fired him, and hired one who was recommended to me.  He seems much more willing to fight.  However, I just received a certified letter from child protective services that says they have found me guilty of neglect, based only on this incident, and that I will be placed on a child maltreatment list, unless an administrative hearing determines otherwise.  I have told my attorney.  This afternoon, more people from protective services came to my house while I was working and my husband was babysitting.  He expressed frustration and referred them to our attorney.  We are not going to speak with them.

I’m scared, and confused and angry.  I am afraid that a guilty conviction could compromise my chances of becoming an attorney.  I am afraid of being permanently labeled a bad mother from a judgment call that happened to be out of line with that police officer’s opinion of good parenting, even though my actions didn’t actually violate the Arkansas child endangerment statute, which is quite vague.

I’m just reaching out for support and strength, and maybe some good ideas.  – A Mom Who Feels Thrust Into an Alternate Reality.

Sorry, comments and trackbacks have now been closed.