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Mother Charged For Leaving 11 Year Old In A Car: Protecting Children, Or Paranoia?

cvs-parking-lot

A mother in Connecticut is charged with leaving her 11 year-old daughter in her car on a hot day:

BRISTOL, CT (WFSB) - A Bristol mother was charged with leaving her 11-year-old child alone in a vehicle that was not running, and had the windows up, police said.

Officers were sent to 60 Middle Street on Tuesday where they said Christina Williams, 30, allegedly left her 11-year-old child inside a vehicle.

Police said the interior temperature of the car was about 85 degrees at the time they got to the scene.

When officers opened the car doors, they said the child was responsive and not in distress, and that the car was not “excessively hot.”

Police said the child requested to stay inside of the car while her mother went inside a store, and Williams was located in the store and said the same thing.

The law that this woman is charged under, like similar laws in other jurisdiction, was obviously intended as a response to the seeming rash of young children, typically two years old or younger, who have died after being left in a hot car for a long period of time. As hard as it may seem to believe, in most cases these things happen not due to malevolence but due to extreme forgetfulness. An example of this can be seen in this piece by The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. That’s not to say that malevolence doesn’t play a role, of course. The case currently pending in Atlanta involving a man named Justin Ross Harris and the death of his 22 month-old son Cooper seems to have all the markings of a case where something other than forgetfulness is responsible for the fact that a young boy died after spending  nine hours in a car seat in his father’s SUV on a broiling hot day in Georgia. It was in the wake of what seemed like an uptick in these reports about young children being left in hot cars that laws like the one at issue in this case were passed.

It strikes me, though, that there is a huge difference between the typical “child locked in hot car” case and what happened here. For one thing, quite obviously, the child at issue is far older than an infant. Theoretically, if she became uncomfortable she could get out of the car or open a window. That is far different from an infant or toddler in a car seat or a child who may be physically unable to get out of the car on their own, but that does not appear to be the case in this situation. In an extreme case, if she couldn’t get out of the car she could bang on a window until someone came to her aid. The giveaway, though, is the fact that the child wanted to stay in the car. Now, obviously 11 year-olds don’t always make the best choices but they’re not completely unable to take care of themselves alone for a short period of time either. Perhaps the statute in question is worded in such a way that the police had no choice but to charge the mother once they were brought to the scene, but the rather obvious differences between very young children and one just a few years short of being a teenager are so obvious that the law ought to recognize those differences to avoid stupidity like this.

Stories like this bring to mind just how much things have changed since I was a kid. When I was eleven, I regularly waited in the car while my Mom went into a store for a short shopping trip. Most of the time, it was far more interesting than walking around some boring store, although I’m sure the current generation of kids would wonder what you’d do with yourself in the car if you didn’t have a iPod, smartphone, or some such other electronic device. I regularly rode a bicycle without a helmet, would spend the better part of a summer day away from home going from one friend’s house to another as we kept ourselves busy during the day, and (shocking) even rode in the car without a seat belt on sometimes. Several years a go when I went to a Babies r Us to shop for friends who had just had a child, my reaction at seeing all the different varieties of “safety” items was “Wow, my parents must have really hated me.” I was kidding, obviously, but it came to mind when I read the linked story, which epitomizes the ways in which things people took as a matter of course just a couple decades ago are, now, seen as exceedingly dangerous. In some respects, much of it seems to be quite silly.

Note: The photo accompanying this post has been changed, as the original was inadvertently misleading.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben says:

    I’m only in my mid-30s, so I’m not really in the “back in my day” age yet, but this story blew my mind. Like you, Doug, I started asking my mom if I could stay in the car instead of going in stores well before the age of 11, and she never thought twice about it. When I think back to my 6th-grade-year (when I was 11), the amount of stuff that my parents trusted me to do entirely on my own would probably get them arrested a hundred times over by today’s standards. I really worry that kids nowadays are not being given enough chances to learn a sense of independence and being entrusted with making a decision every once and a while.

    Their charging this parent with a crime makes my blood boil.

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  2. Ron Beasley says:

    I agree Doug (my gawd, I agree with you twice in one day). There is a difference between leaving an infant or even a pet in a car and an 11 year old.

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  3. Moderate Mom says:

    I was babysitting for my three year old sister and one year old brother when I was eleven. By twelve, I was babysitting for neighbors’s children. I was certainly capable of sitting in a car by myself while my mother went into a store at that age. As were my children at that age.

    We sometimes wonder why so many of today’s young adults seem so immature. Could it possibly be a result of the infantilization of our children, well into their teens?

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  4. @Ron Beasley:

    Twice in one day? It’s a miracle!

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  5. PD Shaw says:

    As a parent of 10-12 yr olds, I’ve probably violated whatever rule this lady is being charged with, though in some circumstances I would certainly insist they accompany me. Most of the laws tend to be multi-factoral. (I looked up the Illinois law on leaving kids home alone and there was so many different factors, that there is no rule except common sense). The Connecticut rule is probably at the link.

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  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I don’t know if it’s me or you but I find myself agreeing with you more and more.

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  7. Jeremy says:

    @Moderate Mom: As a 25 year old who went through this, YES. We are infantilizing our adolescents, which is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

    Some time ago I discovered a book, Teen 2.0. The website for it (http://drrobertepstein.com/Teen20/reviews.html) has a wealth of articles and information (or used to…site seems to have changed somewhat.) One was about a college in Upstate NY, who taught…14 year olds. That’s right, 14 year old kids doing college level classes. This is not just for geniuses, we can do this for most teenagers, but we infantilize them and say they haven’t finished developing, treat them like kids while simultaneously asking them to grow up. Then we wonder what’s wrong.

    It’s maddening.

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  8. James Pearce says:

    I spent a lot of time as a kid sitting in cars while my folks went shopping. I don’t resent it as much as I resent the beatings.

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  9. Rafer Janders says:

    By contrast, a few months ago in New York a mentally ill homeless man and veteran named James Murdough — who was arrested for the “crime” of being a mentally ill homeless man — was left unattended in a Rikers Island jail cell where he baked to death after temperatures reached over 100 degrees inside his unventilated concrete cell. Ironically, he’d been arrested after being found in the stairwell of an apartment building where he’d gone to escape the cold.

    Think any of the Rikers guards and officials responsible for abandoning this man who was in their care and custody to die a horrific death were arrested and charged? Think again….

    The lesson: if you’re a mother, you can’t leave a child alone for more than a few minutes without getting arrested, even if nothing happens to that child. If you’re a jail official, cop or guard, you can basically slowly torture a man to death and you might, at worst, lose some vacation days as punishment.

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/inmate-rikers-island-basically-baked-death-100-degree-room-report-article-1.1726713

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  10. CSK says:

    The poor woman’s been charged with a Class A Misdemeanor, which in Connecticut means she could be fined 2 grand and/or sent to prison for a year. Ridiculous.

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  11. grayjohn says:

    “The law is an ass” so are the people who enforce it no matter what.

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  12. Rafer Janders says:

    was kidding, obviously, but it came to mind when I read the linked story, which epitomizes the ways in which things people took as a matter of course just a couple decades ago are, now, seen as exceedingly dangerous. In some respects, much of it seems to be quite silly.

    In many ways I agree, but in other ways let’s keep in mind that a lot of things that people took as a matter of course don’t just seem exceedingly dangerous now — they were actually exceedingly dangerous back then. Children would get injured, wounded or in some cases killed because they were in the front seat during an accident, weren’t wearing seat belts, weren’t wearing life vests in a boat, felled onto their unhelmeted skulls while skiing, etc. My brother almost drowned to death in the Seventies when he was left unattended for a few minutes in a pool; it was only the fact that a family friend turned around, noticed him motionless on the bottom and dove in that saved him.

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  13. Rafer Janders says:

    I regularly rode a bicycle without a helmet, would spend the better part of a summer day away from home going from one friend’s house to another as we kept ourselves busy during the day, and (shocking) even rode in the car without a seat belt on sometimes.

    And, of course, back in those days when you were gone for the better part of a day you were gone. There was no texting or calling you on the cell to see where you were or tell you to come home.

    Ironic that now that kids can be “supervised” from afar they’re kept closer than ever, while in the past they were given much more leeway when there was no way to check on them.

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  14. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @Moderate Mom: I thoroughly recommend this website which covers this tendency towards overprotection very well: Freerangekids.

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  15. CB says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    If he didn’t want to be baked alive, he shouldn’t have gotten himself arrested for the crime of falling asleep where reputable people might see him. Come on, it’s all about personal responsibilty.

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  16. beth says:

    From about age 8 and up my daughter used to get on her bike with her friends in the neighborhood and ride around most of the day. I never really knew what she was getting into but I knew they were somewhere within a few miles of our house. Now that she’s 18 she tells me the stories of some of the things they did and I have to admit that if I’d known what they were getting up to, I probably wouldn’t have left them alone so much. However, she’s become a really independent young woman with good street smarts and I think having all that freedom helped.

    As long as the mother felt safe leaving her kid in the car in that parking lot, at age 11 I don’t think it’s anything the police should be involved in.

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  17. Rafer Janders says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    My brother almost drowned to death in the Seventies when he was left unattended for a few minutes in a pool; it was only the fact that a family friend turned around, noticed him motionless on the bottom and dove in that saved him.

    And I should add that this was a hotel pool, with several people around — but no lifeguard specifically charged with looking out for swimmers’ safety. Lack of safety measures when we were kids did, in fact, get some of us killed who today would have survived.

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  18. Rafer Janders says:

    Here’s a good rule of thumb: unless your goal is to actually get someone sent to prison, don’t call the police. They are not a public welfare agency. Their goal is to punish, not to help.

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  19. BenchBear says:

    Agree with the “this was an over reaction” comments.
    What also ticks me off is the image that accompanies this online article: It implies that this event happened at a Wal-Mart. If you look up the address quoted in the article, it’s a CVS.

    None of the news releases mention this (though this is the only version I’ve read that has a misleading photo.) It would sound very different if the story was, “Sixth grader asks to stay in the car, as her mom runs into CVS.”

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  20. superdestroyer says:

    I heard again today the refrain that American children will not go outside the “play.” Yet, most parents today would not let their children go outside by themselves. What is the point of being outside if your parents are going to watch every second.

    The Atlantic made overprotective parents their cover story a few months back. What of the odd quotes are parents who talks about wandering around a neighborhood by themselves who would never let their own children to the same thing.

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  21. Some of the stuff that happened when did/were allowed to do were kids was stupid, and the fact that we survived it doesn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. Really, it is pretty obvious, and the numbers back it up, that wearing seat belts is safer than not.

    Having said that, and as a father of three (12-17) and in a neighborhood full of kids, I guarantee they still play outside quite a bit and ride bikes all day long and all of that.

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  22. PD Shaw says:

    @BenchBear: Wow, good catch. The story does read a lot differently.

    If I linked to the correct law, the state has to prove that the child was under twelve, and was unsupervised “for a period of time that presents a substantial risk to the child’s health or safety.” How many minutes is that officer?

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  23. @BenchBear:

    I was going for a generic “cars in a parking lot” picture and that’s really the best one I could find.

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  24. Just Me says:

    I am the mother who is very anti leaving young kids and animals in hot cars (well really any car unattended but once my kids hit around 8-10 and could navigate a parking lot and store safely I had no issue with leaving them in cars.

    This is absolutely overkill. An 11 year old can safely take care of themselves in this situation and should have the option to wait if they choose. An 11 year old is closer to being an adult than an infant and they have to learn independence and good decision making at some point.

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  25. edmondo says:

    On the other hand…..

    On an 85 degree day it takes only 10 minutes for the interior of the vehicle to climb to 102 degrees. In a ½ hour the temperature rises to 120 degrees. These temperatures cause overheating and heat stroke in a very short time.

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  26. DrDaveT says:

    @edmondo:

    On an 85 degree day it takes only 10 minutes for the interior of the vehicle to climb to 102 degrees.

    Really? Regardless of cloud cover? Interior color of the car? Orientation of the car (e.g. sun coming in through the windshield vs. the rear or side window)? Car being parked in the shade?

    I mistrust any source that would make a bald claim like that, when I know how many factors are involved.

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  27. DrDaveT says:

    @Ebenezer_Arvigenius:

    Freerangekids.

    You beat me to it, EA. There is also the book: Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)

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  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    I agree Doug (my gawd, I agree with you twice in one day). There is a difference between leaving an infant or even a pet in a car and an 11 year old.

    I will agree with both of you :)

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  29. G.A.Phillips says:

    I don’t ever remember not sitting in the car during whatever and going back as far I can remember, 6ish, 7ish. It was my getaway time, my jam some top 40 time. I would act like I was driving a lot too :) Good memories.

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  30. M. Bouffant says:

    @G.A.Phillips: Me too. I preferred sitting in the car & listening to the radio to wandering around a supermarket I was already well acquainted w/.

    And sliding over to the driver’s seat to pretend to drive. Except once (naturally when the car was parked on an incline) I pretended to drive so well I let the car out of gear & it started rolling backward. Fortunately an alert woman was passing by & managed to open the door & hit the brake pedal I couldn’t reach before any damage was done.

    You can imagine the embarrassment of a six- or seven-yr. old having to find his mother in the store & tell her what happened.

    Heat may not be the only reason not to leave young people in the car.

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  31. Tyrell says:

    @Jeremy: Children are overparented, overactivitied, over scheduled, and over supervised. We now have parents who follow their children to college. All play is done through the local recreational leagues, with children being shuttled from one sport to another. Many schools no longer give failing grades.
    Gone are the days of children organizing their own games and roaming the woods.
    Get this: in Florida there is some law now that requires all people, including adults, to be use the safety belt on amusement rides. Sounds fine, unless you are an adult and suffer the embarrassment of having to wear a seat belt on the merry go round! Weird, ridiculous! All of this probably because of some lawsuit!

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  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Favorite left in the car story:

    When I was 3 or 4 my mother was rushing to the airport to pick up my father on a cool autumn day. She left me and my 3 older siblings (oldest +6 than me) in the car while she ran into the grocery for something. When she came back out, all the windows were fogged up.

    Without thinking, and with great frustration, she said, “Who’s been breathing in this car?!!!”

    She was answered with a 4 part chorus of “Not me.”

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  33. DrDaveT says:

    Kudos for changing the photo, Doug. Nice job.

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