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kids in cars

From my piece on Time.com today. (Time writes the headlines, not me):

How Kitty Genovese Destroyed Childhood

We once may have been too slow to call the cops. Now we’ll dial 911 if we see a couple kids walking alone to get pizza.

by Lenore Skenazy

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death 50 years ago today. She was 28. A tragedy. The press reported 38 onlookers heard her screams and decided not to intervene. That account has since come under fire, but it nonetheless created a perception of ourselves (and certainly New Yorkers) as unconscionably reluctant to get involved.

We’ve been making up for it ever since — and that’s too bad.

We may once have been too slow to call the cops (though that’s still disputed), but today we are definitely too fast. Oh, I don’t mean we shouldn’t dial 911 if we see someone being murdered, or threatened, or hurt. Of course we should! In fact, the simple 911 number to call for emergencies was developed partly in response to the Genovese murder: Now everyone could have a quick, easy way to summon the cops anytime, anyplace. A great leap forward.

The leap sideways, or perhaps downward, came as the general public gradually became convinced that it not only had an obligation to help anyone in danger, it had the obligation to call the cops anytime it noticed people who could be in danger, especially kids, even if they were fine and dandy at the time. This has given rise to a near mania for calling the cops when people spot a child on his or her own anywhere in public.

Read the rest here.

Reports of uninvolved bystanders led to hyper-involvement today.

Reports of uninvolved bystanders led to hyper-involvement today.

 

Readers — This powerful comment came in response to my piece about the New Jersey woman who let her toddler sleep in the car for 5-10 minutes while she ran an errand. She was arrested, found guilty of abuse or neglect, and put on the state’s Child Abuse Registry. Two weeks ago, a New Jersey appeals court upheld that conviction. I love this letter:

The Child Abuse and Sex Offender Registries are out to SHAME, not SAVE.  (Prop stockade from BJWinslow)

Often as not, the Child Abuse and Sex Offender Registries are out to SHAME, not SAVE. (Prop stockade from BJWinslow)

Dear Free-Range Kids: I think what we’re really seeing here is just our country’s punitive mindset. It’s like we cannot imagine any way to express to somebody that we don’t like what they are doing except for calling it “abuse” and putting them on a registry.

We should all be wary of slippery-slope reasoning. That is what happened with sex offender registries in many states. Registries originally designed to be lists of people who, if a young child went missing, might [warrant being] investigated because their history made it much more likely that they’d rape and murder a child, became, in many states, lists of young men who had sex we think they shouldn’t have. The rationale for doing things like keeping the 20 year old guy who slept with a willing 15 year old girlfriend on a registry for life is that we don’t want 50 year olds to think it’s okay to sleep with 12 year olds. But that’s not how things work. Harshly punishing people for crimes we don’t really consider particularly heinous or dangerous is NOT the way to prevent people from committing heinous, dangerous crimes.

So if the fear is that people will knowingly leave their kids in the car for hours in the hot sun, for their own convenience, which would be genuine child abuse, we are not going to stop that by creating a registry of people who leave their kids in the car for 10 minutes on a nice, temperate day. What next? Registering people who spank their kids so that people don’t think child beating is okay? Registering people who withhold treats from a child so people won’t think starving a child is okay?

“IMPERFECTION” IS NOT ABUSE

Whether we think she acted wisely or not, this woman was charged with CHILD ABUSE and is now on a registry of child abusers. The child abuse registry should not be a list of people who made parenting decisions we don’t like and who we think should therefore be publicly shamed for it; it should be a list of people who ACTUALLY pose a danger to children. This woman does not.

If people feel the need to call this woman a bad mom, call her a bad mom. Whatever. But we don’t want or need the state to validate those judgments, for maximum public humiliation. The point of laws should be public safety, not public humiliation, but more and more of our laws and moving in the direction of seeming to be more about shaming and humiliating and branding people who made decisions we don’t like rather than actually protecting the public from truly dangerous people. – Anonymous Mom

 

Criminalizing behavior we wouldn't do is different from criminalizing behavior that is parenting decisions we don't agree with.

The Child Abuse and Sex Offender Registries are out to SHAME, not SAVE.  (Prop stockade from BJWinslow)

Readers — Here’s my piece that’s in today’s New York Post! The site doesn’t take comments, but if you want to write a letter to the editor, drop one to: letters@nypost.com.

NJ court takes ‘child neglect’ to extremes

by Lenore Skenazy

Did you ever wait in the car while your mom ran an errand? New Jersey says you were abused — and your mom was a criminal.

In an appeals court decision last week, three judges ruled that a mother who left her toddler sleeping in his car seat while she went into a store for five to 10 minutes was indeed guilty of abuse or neglect for taking insufficient care to protect him from harm.

Not that the child came to any harm; he seems to have slept through the whole non-incident.

But when the mom emerged from the store, she was confronted by cops, who’d been summoned by a mall guard when he noticed the sleeping child.

She was arrested and placed on the child-abuse registry — even though a Division of Child Protection and Permanency agent visited her home that day and found the kids well cared for.

If this had been the law back when I was a kid, Rahelen Skenazy — the lady who loves me more than the stars — would be on that registry. …

Read the rest here!

Unattractive clip art that nonetheless illustrates the story.

Unattractive clip art that nonetheless illustrates the story.

Readers — On Tuesday a New Jersey state appeals court ruled that a mom who let her 19-month-old wait in the car for 5 to 10 minutes was guilty of abuse. According to this story by Salvador Rizzo in the Star-Ledger:

“A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent’s sight, no matter how briefly,” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote for the three-judge panel.

He cited the risk of “car theft or kidnapping” and the possibility that “on a hot day, the temperature inside a motor vehicle can quickly spike to dangerously high levels, just as it may rapidly and precipitously dip on a cold night.”

As far as I can tell, the judge did not give any statistics. How could he? Had he or his fellow judges bothered to look at the facts (or remember their own childhoods, when most of us waited in cars), they would have realized the mom had made a completely rational, safe decision based on reality, not delusion.

Let’s consider some facts. Every year, more than 1200 children under age 15 are killed in car accidents. Meantime, about 50 are kidnapped and murdered by strangers (generally not after being snatched from vehicles), and about 35-40 die of overheating in cars, the vast majority after having been forgotten there all day, NOT after waiting out a 10-minute errand.

So as David DeLugas, executive director of the National Association of Parents points out: a child is actually far more safe in car that is NOT MOVING than one that IS.

Of course it would make no sense to arrest any parent who drives a kid anywhere. In fact, it would be nuts! Sure there’s a risk whenever we drive our kids, but it’s small enough that it’s one we rationally take.

So shouldn’t we be allowed to take the even TINIER risk of letting them wait in the car during an errand?

Ernest Landante, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, welcomed the court’s ruling …“Leaving a child alone in a vehicle – even for just a minute – is a bad idea,” Landante said. “Left unattended, a child in a vehicle is vulnerable to abduction and dehydration.”

Dehydration? Over the course of one minute? Can we please base our laws on something remotely resembling earth-bound reality?

The ruling, which can be applied to similar cases from now on, does not specify the age at which it no longer becomes negligent to leave a child in a car. Anyone under 18 is protected by the state child abuse law, but Fisher’s ruling also speaks of the “tender” age of [the defendant] Eleanor’s child.

So, considering the court has ruled that basically anyone under 18 is in danger even for a single MINUTE in a parked car, are we ready to do something about it, and bring attention to the cruelty of treating normal, loving parents like child abusing monsters? If so, would anyone consider joining me for a morning in New Jersey when we’d let our kids wait in the car for 10 minutes? Let me know! – L.

Never? Never ever ever? Even if I rationally, lovingly decide it's safe?

Never? Never ever ever? Even if I rationally, lovingly decide it’s safe?

Readers — This is a two-part post. First comes a letter from Lisa, a mom in Arizona who had her kids (2 and 4) wait in the car while she ran an errand and is now facing charges of neglect. The temperature that morning was mild, not sweltering. The second part is a letter to Lisa from The National Association of Parents‘ founder, David DeLugas. He has pledged to use new membership dues ($19 for a year) and donations toward hiring Lisa a lawyer. I’m a member! Read on:

Dear Free-Range Kids: It was approx 11 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 11th. I realized I was out of dog food. My oldest would have normally been at school, but she had a fever, so she stayed home with her brother and me. I went to get dog food. I decided to leave both children in the car. (My Nissan is a push button start, so I can leave it running). I had the ac on, doors locked. The errand took a lot longer than I anticipated. I was waiting on the clerk to tell me about a specific brand of dog food. She had to consult with another employee about it. A 5-minute trip turned into what I am guessing to be 15 or 20 minutes, tops. (The police report states up to an hour.)

As I walked out of the door, I saw 2 police cars, and a fire truck. I ran to the car, unlocked it, and they forced me to remove my children. Both were crying, as I was. I was begging please don’t take my babies. Both children were clinging to me. Officers took photographs of my children and the inside of my car. They kept me and the children there for awhile. They said if I didn’t cooperate fully their sergeant told them to arrest me. 

After telling me all the horrific things that could HAVE happened, they let us go. 

A lady from CPS came the next day, but I was out of town. She talked to my husband. I got back Monday afternoon. She came on Tuesday. I was afraid. I was apologetic. She asked if she could speak with my daughter alone, I obliged, even though it was uncomfortable for my daughter and I. When her and my daughter came out of a guest bedroom, she asked my daughter in front of me about good touch and bad touch, and asked if she had ever been touched. She said no. I tried to smile thru all of this, but I was extremely uncomfortable. The case worker noticed my son’s happy and laid-back personality. Then said something bizarre. That he seems to have my husband’s demeanor. I smiled, but took it as insult.

The aftermath of this has caused all of us serious anxiety. Now, when I pick my daughter up from preschool she’ll say please don’t stop for gas mommy,  or, “You don’t have to go anywhere do you?” 

My arraignment is Jan. 15. I don’t know what to do.

I am terrified.

Thank you, Lisa

And now — how to help. Here’s what DeLugas wrote to Lisa, which she shared with me:

Lisa,

The hearing on January 15 is an “arraignment” and that, unless Arizona is different, is nothing more than the charges being read and your pleading not guilty.  In fact, if you hire an attorney, most likely the attorney can agree to waive the arraignment and plead NOT GUILTY without your going to court.  Then what would follow is your attorney sending the prosecutor “discovery” asking for everything the prosecutor has in his or her file and preparing for a jury trial.

You must find an attorney.  We will try to raise some money so that we can pay the attorneys’ fees, realizing that you, like most parents, just don’t have an extra few thousand dollars to fight back against such absurd charges.  If we had the membership base or the donations that I know we will one day soon, we wouldn’t have to have a specific fund-raiser for you. Alas, we are not yet there.  Your attorney might decide (and I recommend) (a) that you engage an expert witness to refute the notion that you endangered your children, (b) that you have evidence of the weather conditions that day (your testimony may differ from the witness for the State), and (c) that you are prepared to testify.

I would expect that, after consulting with an attorney, you will plead “NOT GUILTY” and prepare for a jury trial where, for it to convict you, the State has the burden of proving beyond all reasonable doubt that you “knowingly caused or permitted the LIFE of [your children] to be endangered”  . . . “by neglect.”  That is what is in the Arizona statute under which you are being charged. I already spoke with several attorneys and will help screen them and even will help the attorney hired with strategy and preparation for trial.

I would also suggest a motion to dismiss the charges based on the unconstitutionality of it.  Initial thoughts are that it is vague in that “endangered” is not defined in the statute.  After all, a parent who allows her child to play tackle football, ride a dirt bike, go bungee jumping, participate in cheerleading or gymnastics, or go scuba diving “endangers” the child, too, because the risk of harm to a child from those activities is probably GREATER than the risk that your children would be harmed in the locked car, AC on, while you were inside a store (whether 15 minutes or longer).  As well, the usurping of the right of parents to raise their children unless actual harm comes to the child is a violation of the Constitution and this statute infringes on that right. Together, we will consider having a professor at a local university who deals with risk analysis to do so and prepare to testify.

…I urge you NOT to plead to a lesser charge or to accept a plea deal where you are “only” on probation.  That is exactly the outcome the prosecutor wants, likely expects, from parents who don’t want to face the risk of conviction, but prefer to pay the fine and be on probation.  You are not a bad parent.

Try not to worry. Make 2014 a good year. – David

Readers: Here, again, is the link for the National Association for Parents. I’ll write a post about them soon. I like what they are doing and sure hope they can help Lisa! This could be the start of something big. – L 

A mom faces her day in court.

A mom faces her day in court.

************UPDATE: Readers, one of you has just written to say that after leaving her two kids in the car for a short time, she was cited by the cops and now must appear in court on Jan. 15 (despite a visit by CPS that found nothing amiss at home). She would love to talk to someone who has been through this: a lawyer or a parent. Please write here or, if you prefer, email me at heylenore3@gmail.com with a way for her to reach you. Thank you! – L. *******************

Readers — The other day I ran a post about a mom who left her toddler in the car for a minute (and visible to her), but was nonetheless excoriated by a “Good Samaritan,” with a hyper-inflated sense of the child’s “endangerment” and her own heroism — which took the lovely form of screaming. Free-Range Kids stands by the belief that our children are NOT in constant danger, and this idea that “Anything could happen!” even in normal, everyday circumstances is a cancer on our society. It robs parents of the ability to make decent, caring judgments based on reality, not hysteria. We must keep fighting for this idea, spreading the Freee-Range message until notes like THIS are the anomaly, not us:

Dear Free-Rande Kids: Sorry, this was needlessly dangerous and something she should not have done.  The other [yelling] woman was fully in her right.  Why?

1) Car could have been stolen.  Look it up.  Guy runs inside to get ice at a convenience store, car stolen.  A mom in my area left sick baby in car when she ran in to get medicine, was out within 5 minutes, car was stolen.  Don’t be an idiot.  You wouldn’t leave a million in an unattended car.

2) Child could not release car seat and escape car on their own if something went wrong.  Therefore child was too young to be left in car alone.  I’m not silly, to me it’s alright for my 6 year old to be in a car alone now and the main reason is because she knows to not get in the driver’s seat and she can get out of a car seat on her own and leave the car if something goes wrong.  A 2 year old can’t.

3) Sure she was still in ‘line of sight’ but if something had happened inside the building no one would have been aware of the baby in the car.  And the baby would have been unable to escape the car on his own, and no one would have been able to get him out without breaking windows.

Infants and toddlers die from parents running in a store quickly to get just one or two items and becoming delayed.  That woman getting upset had no idea how long the child had been left.  Where I live you can be charged if you step further than 20 feet away from your car with your toddlers/infants inside, and the reason is because if someone comes up to a car and finds a baby strapped inside then no one knows how long they’ve been there, you can’t tell from looking at them if they’re suffering from heat or cold exposure, and you need to act quickly to get them out so the law needs to support these rescue efforts.

Then I received this note from Kate, a Montessori teacher in Chicago, bringing us back to the real world, thusly:

I can’t tell you how many times I left my children in the car. Because I lived and died by an old adage “Never wake a sleeping baby” – well, I never did. Because they fell asleep in the car so regularly, I could often be found running into stores (with the car always in sight) with sleeping babies in the car. I usually just left the car on and locked as I had two keys. I had a similar experience of someone finding me in the store and threatening to call the police and another time a parking lot security guard threatening to call the police. Interestingly, both of these incidents were in the suburbs, not in the city where I live. At these times, I always remembered how often my four brothers and I were left in the car. We had entire games to be played in the car. One was “dentist” where you dropped the seat back and the person in back of you worked on your teeth. These are the things that taught me patience, ingenuity, tolerance, cooperation…. Such a crazy, crazy world.

I agree: It is a “crazy, crazy” world, in LOVE with the idea of death always lurking nearby, ready to teach non-helicopter parents a lesson. I guess it makes life more exciting. But I can’t say the same for childhood. – L

P.S. I am trying to think up a clever way to bring this issue to greater attention and create some resistance to the idea our kids can’t wait in the car even for a short, safe while. Ideas welcome. 

children car use

When our freedom to raise our kids SANELY is threatened by crazy social norms and laws we MUST fight back.

Dear Readers — When you live in a society spasming with fear, it is hard not to flinch. That’s why we are here on this blog together. To support each other when the world mistakes our confidence and rationality for neglect and abuse. – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I just finished reading Free Range Kids, over the course of 1.5 days. I never send fan mail, but I couldn’t keep my gratitude and relief to myself.

I am the mother of a 22-month-old boy, and I have been parenting him in a Free-Range style without really having a name for it.  He has always been very independent, so I’ve always given him as much freedom as I feel a toddler can have.  Parents who follow their children around the (fenced-in) playground have always confused me, and I’ve gotten my fair share of concerned looks when he has climbed on top of something really high (again) and I haven’t been rightbyhisside.

Though I knew my parenting style was more hands-off than most of my counterparts, I always felt confident in my choice to trust my son and let him set his own limits (within reason of course – I have yet to let him sit down to play with cigarette butts in a busy parking lot).  But about a month ago, something happened that really made me wonder if I was a terrible parent and wrong to think “stranger-danger” was overblown:

After an afternoon of running errands, my son and I made a last stop at the post office. I needed a flat-rate shipping box.  He was getting sleepy, so I decided that he could stay in the car while I made the 20-second trek to go inside, grab a box, and come right back out.  It was a mild October afternoon and I was able to snag a parking spot that would allow me to keep the car in my line of vision.  I handed him a book, told him I would be right back, locked the doors, and was back within literally 20 seconds.  We were about to be on our way when:

“IS THERE A BABY IN YOUR CAR???”

Oh jeez.  An elderly lady parked in the car next to us was hanging out of her window staring at me. I rolled down the window and hesitantly replied, “Yes?”

“DID YOU LEAVE IT IN YOUR CAR?!”

Oh crap.  “Well yeah, just for two seconds–”

“YOU DON’T DESERVE TO HAVE CHILDREN! YOU DON’T DESERVE TO HAVE CHILDREN!”  Her screaming drew a crowd and I was absolutely mortified. Even thinking about it makes my hands shake and my face flush.  My first instinct was to f-bomb her, but my son was with me and she was well, old, and you can’t f-bomb an old person, even if they are telling you that you should be sterilized.

I decided to roll up my window and just drive away. Then I became worried that she had probably written down my license plate and was on the phone with the police.  I began to wonder if I have actually been making choices that were endangering my son.  My stomach was knotted for days and I couldn’t sleep.  My husband was assuring me that she was crazy, or maybe she knew a child who steamed to death in a car.  Either way, my confidence was gone.  Never had my parenting skills been so publicly condemned, and never had I felt so much FEAR about parenting.

Then I read your book and found this blog. Ahhh (that is a sigh of relief).  I stopped feeling so alone and fearful.

Parenting is hard enough without living in fear. Thank you a million times.

Sincerely, Catherine in Richmond, VA
It is hard to stay sane in a society that sees a boy like this as hideously endangered.

It is hard to stay sane in a society that sees a boy like this as hideously endangered.