Is Leaving Your Kids in the Car a Right?

I know that we hear a lot of horror stories about children who die from heat exhaustion, or are kidnapped while left in a car. There was recently an episode of What Would You Do? where they set up the scenario of a baby left in a car with the windows up on a hot day. The “baby” was a decoy, of course, but it was programmed to cry so people would hear it. I watched the episode in outrage at how many people walked by without interfering. Some ignored it, but there were plenty of people who noticed and were disturbed, but still did nothing.

I am a concerned citizen, and I believe we should all look out for children, whether we know them or not, but here’s my question: Where do we draw the line? When are we doing our part, and when are we meddling or overreacting?

I was hesitant to share this publicly for fear of being judged or attacked, but now I’ve decided that I want to speak up about it. I left my kids in the car the other day, as I regularly do (or should I say did), so that I could run into the grocery store for a few things. We were on our way home from a day of swimming at the lake, and Oliver (my almost 4 yr old) was sound asleep in his car seat. Max (my 10.5 yr old) was shirtless and exhausted, and had no interest in going in.

I was gone only 10 minutes, and on my way to the check out when I was called over the loud speaker to the parking lot. To make a long story short, a woman had gone to her car, saw my kids, waited 5 minutes (or possibly less), and called the police. The police had us out there in the parking lot for an hour or so while they decided if I should go to jail or not. They had me wake Oliver up so a medic could look him over to make sure he wasn’t injured or on drugs (like if I had given him something to make him sleep). That part really sucked, ’cause he was so exhausted. He would have slept through the night, and he needed every bit of it. Instead, he ended up staying awake until nearly 2 am after his little car nap. That, more than anything else, made me feel violated.

I knew it was illegal to leave a helpless child in the car alone, but I didn’t know it was illegal to leave my 4 yr old with my 10.5 yr old for 10 minutes. It’s legal in the state of Kansas (where I was investigated) to leave my 10 yr old home alone, or allow him to babysit, so why could I have been arrested for leaving them in the car?  Why was I treated like a negligent parent? I’m not sure the law makes sense.

My son is responsible for his age. He knows not to touch the emergency brake (though I’m not sure he could disengage it if he tried), and that if he did touch it the car would roll and crash. He doesn’t want that to happen. He knows not to mess with the keys. The car was running with the air conditioner on. He knows that if the car were to die, he would need to roll the windows down, or open the doors so that he and his brother would not get overheated. We have discussed many possible scenarios, and I know him. I know he can handle it for 10 minutes. I’ve never left them in the car longer than that.

I felt like I was making an educated parenting decision, not simply neglecting my children. I do not consider the car a babysitter. We’re talking 10 minutes in the grocery store with my 10 yr old in the car. I wasn’t shopping at the mall. And you know, I would call the police if I saw kids locked in a car on a hot day with the windows up, especially if they were little. Their lives would be in immediate danger, and that would be the right thing to do. I understand this woman’s concern, but I don’t feel my kid’s lives were in danger. I understand it’s illegal, and I won’t do it again for that reason, but that’s where I’m coming from.

I’m taking a deep breath, and preparing myself for whatever judgment may come. I want to hear your opinions either way. Do you think you would have reacted the way this woman did? Do you think she did the right thing or that she should have handled it differently? Do you think you should have a right, within reason, to make the decision about whether or not to leave your kids in the car for brief periods of time? Did you know that in England, it is illegal to leave a child under the age of 15 home alone or allow them to babysit? What is the law in your state? Do you support the law as is? Where do you think the line should be drawn in the eyes of the law? Do you feel like your rights are violated because of the law?

A friend shared the website www.SafeKids.org where you can look up the laws in your area.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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26 thoughts on “Is Leaving Your Kids in the Car a Right?

  1. Once you said that the car was running and the air was on, I didn’t understand the interference of the police and the stranger at all. Especially the need to call in a paramedic.

    I admit that I’d never left my kids in the car until recently – they are now 9 & 11, and can get out if they need to and come and find me. Our temps, aside from a few weeks in the summer, don’t get really high. It’s also illegal here to leave a car idling, so we couldn’t do that.

    I think leaving your youngest in a cool car with a responsible older child (ours was also very responsible and helpful with her baby cousins when she was 10) shouldn’t have been a cause for concern.

    • Thank you for commenting. I didn’t leave mine until fairly recently either, and it was a big relief for not only me, but them, ’cause they don’t always want to run in the store for milk and eggs, then the bank for 5 minutes to get cash from the atm, then cell phone store for 5 minutes to pick up a repair. It’s no more fun for them than it is for me! We won’t have that luxury anymore, and maybe it’s for the better, I don’t know, but as one friend who was previously unaware of the law said, “So basically, every errand I run with my children just got a lot harder.” And so it is.

      ~D

  2. What would make my decision would be- what would Max do if you didn’t come back when you were supposed to? Say you tell him 10 minutes and it’s been 20. Or 30. Would he be scared? Would Oliver? Does Max know how to turn off the car, lock it, and get safely into the store with Oliver if Oliver suddenly has to poop or something? If you collapsed in the store, how would the paramedics know that your kids were in the car? If you can leave Max your cell phone or get him a TracPhone then I think this would be a much safer scenario. I didn’t start leaving Madeline alone with Charlotte and Valerie until Madeline had taken a CPR class and had her own cell phone, but that is my comfort level.

    • Those are all really important things to think about. Max did have my cell phone (I always left it with him), and he would know to get out of the car and go in the store if I didn’t come back in after 15 or 20 minutes, or if his brother had to go to the bathroom. He does know how to get his brother out of his seat. He wouldn’t turn off the car, ’cause he’s not allowed to touch the wheel or ignition.

      If I did pass out in the store, the paramedics wouldn’t know. That is one scenario that would be awful. However, I do believe that Max would get out, or at least call his dad or his aunt or his grandma and ask them what he should do if I didn’t come back.

      I’ve never left them more than 10 minutes, so it’s not like we’ve been able to test any of that (except for the paramedic situation, none of those would be an issue in such a short time), but we did discuss various scenarios. That’s why I felt like I was making an educated parenting decision. I totally understand why some people wouldn’t be comfortable with that, but my big question is, should they have the right to choose. I know many people would say no.

      ~Daniél

  3. This happened to a friend of mine with a bunch of kids. She and hubs, ironically, went into HyVee and left their kids in the car (sleeping baby, a bunch of others and the oldest was probably 12???). Someone called the cops. It astounds me how fast they come for something like that, to come and harass parents who went into the store for a moment. I know we all assume kids are stupid and will escape or drive away or that someone really wants our car or our kids, but that’s just not true. One thing is for sure, since knowing this law (they need to publicize this better or something), I won’t be doing this anymore. Stores, get ready for the loud wrath of my kids! By the way, good for you for not going anonymous. There will be those who post anonymous crappy comments, but just know there are other things THEY are doing as parents that would freak YOU out, and move on.

    • Thanks. I would have had a hard time believing that story before this happened. I really do appreciate that there are people out there looking out for children, but sometimes they “look” too hard, or are too quick to judge. I’ve heard of people having child services called on them because their children are outside nude or partially nude (even just shirtless and barefoot) when it’s “too cold”. I am a believer in natural consequences (to a certain extent), and when my toddler was refusing to wear clothes when it got cold outside, I let him go out naked. Guess how many times he did that before consenting to layers of clothing?

      ~Daniél

      • EXACTLY. The same people who believe in Love and Logic call SRS on you for your kid wearing shorts when it is 59 degrees (oh, wait, that really happened … to me). Yes, specifically 59 degrees. I know we are all different and have different limits on what we think is acceptable parenting, but come on!

  4. Well, it’s illegal, and by right, the lady did the right thing by calling, in my opinion. She didn’t know how long you were planning on being in there, and I would rather inconvenience someone by speaking up then ignoring the situation and risking the children’s lives, you know? BUT, I do see YOUR view, and considering the fact that your son is old enough to stay home alone, I think he should be allowed to sit in a car by himself, and watch his brother, at night. I really think the law is to blame here. It needs to be clearly defined. I also agree that there are just too many damn laws.

    • Thanks for commenting. Too many laws indeed. Whether it’s actually illegal in OP is questionable. The law reads: “11.08.070 Minors Locked in Cars. No minor shall be locked in an unattended vehicle by any adult unless such child has the present ability to release himself from such vehicle. ”

      I would have to disagree that she had done “the right thing” simply because, as she was concerned for the kids, there were other ways to handle it. If she had waited 3 more minutes, I would have been out there, and she could have talked to me about it. She obviously didn’t have trouble with confrontation when she chewed me out in front of a police officer, and treated me like a piece of crap. I feel like she was being overly judgmental. In some cities, what I did may have been legal. Heck, it may have been legal there. I don’t think that would have stopped her from being as quick to judge as she was, or from calling the police.

      ~Daniél

      • Well I’m not a lawyer (no, wait, actually, I am!) and I don’t think you violated the ordinance. Your 10 year old knew how to release himself from the car if necessary. The only gray area would be that he didn’t know how to unbuckle the 4 year old, but that’s easy enough to fix for next time. The nosy woman completely overreacted as did the police in my opinion. I remember when my kids were the age of your older child. It is hard because you want to give them more responsibility and help them grow up and honor the fact that they aren’t little kids anymore, but you always have to be worrying about whether you’ll be judged. You know your child more than anyone, and if your 10 year old was ready for this no one should second guess you. If I had seen two kids in a running car in a parking lot I probably would have gone back to my car and sat and watched until the mother emerged from the store. My only concern would have been making sure the kids were okay. If they were there for a long time, I might have walked up and smiled at the kids and asked them where their mommy or daddy was and were they okay. I have come across small children who appear to be alone in a store or some other public place, and I just always stop and ask the child if their mom or dad is nearby and then I wait with them until their parent finds them and then try to say something polite and friendly to the parents to let them know that I’m a parent too and hey, sometimes our kids get away from us. I’m so sorry you went through that. We should all stick together and help out other parents and not attack them and make their lives more complicated. We seem to have lost that communal sense of helping one another . . .

      • I couldn’t have said any of that better myself (except the lawyer part, ’cause I’m not a lawyer =)

        My 10 yr old does know how to unbuckle my 4 yr old, so that is covered. I thought maybe it was murky, ’cause while the 10 yr old knows how to get himself out, the 4 yr old doesn’t, so maybe that is where the violation was. I don’t know. None of it was explained to me. All the officer said was that it was illegal to leave your kids in the car, followed by a lecture on all the dangers.

        I will say that a 2nd officer showed up, and she seemed to be much more reasonable. She talked to me, talked to the kids, got a feel for the situation, then talked to the first officer. After conferring, they decided to “let me go”, but they still had to write a report about it.

        I agree more that we need to stick together and help each other out, not judge and persecute. I am so far from a negligent parent, it’s not even funny. That, to me, seemed like a waste of the city’s resources, and a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

        ~D

      • Hold the phone. She stayed to talk to the cops but could not stay to wait simply for YOU alone, to talk like 2 humans? Wow. Maybe she was afraid you were some nutjob or something! This is what the Internet and the news have done to us.

      • If the 4 year old was the problem (i.e., not being able to release himself from the car), then that means my 16 year old would not be able to sit in the car, either. The ordinance says “any minor”. But that would be a ridiculous interpretation. So where do we draw the line? How old does a minor have to be before they can be responsible for getting their younger sibling out of the car in an emergency? That’s a judgment call. Depends on the kid. But since 10 year olds are allowed to sign up for babysitting courses with the red cross, it seems to me that you are in a gray area and that it is not unreasonable for you to think you are within your rights to leave your 10 year old in charge of your 4 year old for 10 minutes. Of course, this all depends on other details like, where are you? In a high crime area? In my neighborhood, I would feel comfortable doing something like this, but maybe in a different part of town where there might be a higher crime rate, maybe the best thing is to take the kids into the store.

      • That’s a good point. And to be honest, I wouldn’t do it (and haven’t done it) in my neighborhood. My neighborhood is not awful, but the crime rate is significant. I was in Overland Park, KS, a wealthy, very suburban city. (It’s the city where the United States of Tara is set. They wanted an uber-suburban, midwestern, Anytown, USA sort of place.) I’m not under any delusion that we are immune to crime in any sort of neighborhood, but the incidence of car-jackings and kidnappings are fairly low in OP. Would I leave my kids unsupervised in any way for 2 seconds in say, Mexico City? Heck no! (ftr, I am not anti-Mexico, or scared of the average Mexican City or town. I just know that the rate of kidnappings is high in Mexico City. Just had to throw out that disclaimer.)

        ~D

    • I love that you mentioned how when you were a kid, sometimes you stayed in the car, ’cause you wanted to. You’d rather have read a book than run in the bank with your mom. I did the same thing as a kid, and in fact, that day at the grocery store, Max had said, “Can I please stay in the car?” I was already planning to run in alone, but he had no interest in going in that day, and I don’t blame him. He has no choice now that I know it’s illegal, and it’s just too bad.

      ~D

  5. I would have done the same thing as the lady in the parking lot. I would have waited about 5 minutes or so and called the police. I have called for a dog in the car with the car running and would have called for a child. Unless the child looks old enough to drive the car, I would have called. In my opinion, the lady did the right thing. Ignoring the problem, or assuming the parent had only been gone 5 minutes (the parent could have been gone for 20 minutes already, how is she to know?), would have been the wrong thing. I have read stories in passing about good samaritans breaking a car window to get a child out, would that have been better (granted this was a case where the car was not running)? If someone had done that for the toddler that died in the car a few weeks ago in the KC Metro area, they could have saved his life. Sorry, but I do disagree with you, despite the age of your 10 year old, I would not have left my children in the car, even with it running. Having the car running just makes it easier for a dishonest person to break a window and take off with the car. More than one story in the area where that has been done with children in the car. What would your 10 year old done in that case?

    I am sorry you felt violated and were judged, but again, in my opinion, the officers were doing their job to make sure the children were safe. If more people were concerned about the safety of all children, there might be less tragedies for children.

    • “I have read stories in passing about good samaritans breaking a car window to get a child out, would that have been better (granted this was a case where the car was not running)?”

      While I don’t agree with you on everything you said, I certainly respect your opinion, and see where you are coming from. I have to say yes to the above question. If my kids were alone in the car on a hot day, and the car was not running, I would rather someone break window to help save their lives than leave them assuming I’d be back shortly. Absolutely.

      ~D

    • I’m not trying to be challenging or disrespectful, but do you really think someone needs to be of driving age to be left alone in the car or was that just a general comment? I am having a hard time thinking it would be wrong to leave a 15 year old—an age where he/she could have certainly walked to the store unsupervised and could have certainly arrived in the car with a driving age boyfriend–in a car unattended. I do think there is some grey area in leaving younger kids though Daniel was within the law as it is written in OP and I don’t think she should have been treated the way she was. It looks like 11 is the legal age in Missouri unless supervised by a 14 year old. I do leave my kids in the car occasionally (they are 13) though at their age more often I send them in with the credit card to buy the items for me—-is that dangerous? I guess I’m not understanding the inherent danger of a car over a house or a store as far as lack of supervision if the heat is not a concern and the child can get out if need be.

      • Lara, Max goes into grocery stores and gas stations for me all the time. (Not the mall or anything like that, and he only just in the past 6 months or so started doing that. I might have let him do it sooner, probably would have, but he didn’t have the attention span for it or the money counting skills before then.) In fact, just today he got me an Arnold Palmer at Quick Trip. He likes doing it. It makes him feel important, capable, and independent. I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal, but I’m now just waiting to get in some sort of trouble over it.

        ~D

  6. Wow, I’m shocked! Firstly by reading what happened to you and then by what I found out when searching for what the law in the UK is regarding this…I have done this before when I needed to dash to a shop and the baby is sleeping in the car and I had NO IDEA it was illegal! Thanks for raising this issue – I’m sure there are many of us mums who appreciate this warning.

    • I know. I didn’t know it was illegal, at least the way I did it. It is good to have the information, whether you agree that it should be a law or not. I certainly won’t be doing again! Well, at least not until my oldest is 14 and we are in a city where a 14 yr old is legally allowed to be responsible for his/her younger siblings in a car. Kerrie M. made a really good point when she said that her parents left her in the car as a kid for short errands sometimes ’cause it was convenient, but sometimes because she simply didn’t want to run in every place with them. She’d rather sit and read in the car. I did the same thing as a kid.

      ~D

  7. I’ve been in a similar situation to that lady, believe it or not. I was walking to my car, my youngest in the backpack, in a hurry to go to pick my eldest up from kindy – and saw a child in the car, alone, windows down (wasn’t hot). She was crying, mum had dragged the younger one into the shop, obviously at her wits end with the tantrums (it was a tantrum cry). Now, no danger here, wasn’t hot, but… the girl was distressed at being left, and probably under 5, and quite a few people saw mum just leave her. I was upset, I didn’t know if anyone around was dodgy, on a tight time schedule and didn’t know what to do. So I loitered around until the last person that had been in the carpark and seen the drama had left, then I had to leave. I wanted to go in and find the woman and say hey, can I get you guys a coffee, obviously you’ve had a hard day, lets all go cool down and not leave tantrum throwing kids alone in carparks… but I kinda knew she’d punch me, no matter how I said it. It wasn’t a call-the-cops event, to my mind – and neither was yours. Certainly not for two NON-DISTRESSED kids, not overheated, in a car. I’d have waited for you, only called for help if 1) the kids were unhappy or 2) playing with the car was happening or 3) too much time had passed.
    I wouldn’t let my boys alone in an idling car because my eldest WOULD drive it. But your guys are older, and much more sane 😉 I have left my kids alone for 1 min (literally), with the dog in the car, and only at the tiny town shop I go to, and I’m sweating it even then. My sister said something to me about parenting, when I told her I just couldn’t win at it. She said “Ami, not only can we not win, we can’t even choose how we will lose”.
    Hugs to you and your family, I’m sorry this happened, as far as I’m concerned the woman did the wrong things, in the wrong way, for some of the right reasons – but the level of wrong is far over and above concern, and into pushiness and judgement. Sorry for the novel, and big supportive fuzzies to you all!

    • Thanks, Ami. You’re awesome. I love your solution to the problem, especially the part about offering the mom a coffee. No matter how upset, she might have been more receptive to that than you think. Either way, that’s a great way to be supportive and look out for a kid. It’s not always necessary to get the authorities involved and majorly disrupt everyone’s day, not to mention putting a negative mark on a loving, responsible parent’s record.

      Spanking is not illegal, but I HATE IT. I personally think it’s an awful way to parent, especially the way I see some people using it. (A family member once spanked a 3 yr old 4 or 5 times in a single night because she kept getting out of bed.) No matter how much I don’t like it, it is a valid parenting choice, and I have no business interfering. If it crosses the line into abuse, then yes, I will interfere, I will call authorities, I will do what I can for the child, but my point is that that parent still deserves my respect and support. I can give that parent books on non-coercive parenting techniques, I can model, I can buy them a coffee to help keep them calm, ’cause parenting is damn hard, and it’s not my place to judge someone for the choices they make or the techniques they use.

      ~D

      • That’s it, in a nutshell! I think so much MORE pressure is added to parenting because of this judgemental nonsense. Sometimes you see someone, in a snapshot situation, red, angry, losing it – and then is when they need a hug, or a coffee, or support, most of all. Not a snide look, comment, or anything else.
        I think its similar to the way PETA will throw red paint over female celebrities wearing fur, but not over Hells Angels bikies wearing leather : good parents having a bad day are easy,and cheap, targets – but what that costs is the police harassing a great parent like you, and at that time they’re NOT catching someone beating their kid to death.
        Parenting is hard, if you’re doing it right. And you’re doing it right! *hands internet coffee around. With whiskey in it*

  8. I’m sorry you had to go through that awful experience with the police. You did nothing wrong. You were using parental judgment based on your situation and your children. Our society erred on the side of not protecting children for a long, long time. Now we are going too far the other way, to where you have to fight just to do what you think best for your children….like the parents who were arrested in 2009 for not putting their teenage son through chemo and instead choosing to fight the cancer with alternative methods. You are a good mother and always have been. One of the best. It is a comfort to know that my grandchildren have good, loving parents.

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