Russell Hebets Jan. 6, 2017

Imagine this: You and your spouse are out running errands and you are finally at your last stop. In the meantime, your preschooler has fallen asleep and there is no way you are going to wake this peaceful child for a 15 minute chore. So you run in, grab what you need and head back to your car. This should be a quick errand, but lo and behold, an overly concerned citizen has called the police, they are by your car, breaking a window to save your poor child (who was fine until they intervened). Before you know it, you are arrested, your kid is with social services and now you have a giant legal matter to deal with as well as a threat to your family.

Now imagine this: You are out running an errand and as you walk through the parking lot to the store you see a child in a car seat by herself. You have no idea how long she has been there. You see no one around who may be responsible for her. She appears to be sleeping, but there is no way to know for sure. So you decide to call the police, it’s the safest bet under the circumstances.

This isn’t just a hypothetical, this issue arises daily in America.  Just ask the family in Long Island who is still dealing with its legal ramifications. The two polar opposite ways of looking at this call for dramatically different reactions, so which version do the facts support? 

The Laws in Colorado

Colorado does not have a specific law concerning leaving kids unattended in vehicles, most states do not, but there are related statutes that may be applied. If an officer decides a situation is dangerous for the child, then the parent may be charged with child neglect or child endangerment. The consequences range from citation to arrest, and to possible removal of the child from the home; but even a citation would be an inconvenience for a busy parent to deal with. Additionally, these kinds of charges inevitably bring child services into your home, which can be another difficult hurdle to face.

Is There a Risk?

The truth is we tend to perceive that crime is increasing, but crime statistics reveal the opposite, we are safer than ever before. There are many theories as to why we think crime is greater, some say we are over exposed to information; others blame the 24/7 news cycle and the tendency of media outlets to showcase the worst news. However, data indicates that crime has reduced significantly since the 1990s across all areas. The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports the following (based on Department of Justice numbers): Homicides are down 40%; Juvenile homicide is down 36%; Forcible rape is down 28%; Sex abuse of children is down 51%; Physical abuse of children is down 46%.

In terms of abductions, in 1999, which is the last year of reported numbers on this matter, 115 children were abducted. Compare this to the 1300 kids killed in car accidents, or the 1000 kids killed by a family member in the same time frame and it becomes clear that abduction is not a significant threat. Abductions that lead to murders comprise less than 1% of all murders committed in the US.

Furthermore, the idea of stranger danger is essentially a myth. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), from 1976 to 2005 and among children under 5 who were killed, 3% of those children were killed by a stranger, 31% were killed by fathers and 29% by mothers. Stranger danger is strikingly less concerning here. In fact, these numbers indicate there are parents who need far more support.

In terms of missing children, the numbers indicate a similar pattern of overestimating the danger. Of the 800,000 children who are reported as missing each year, approximately 100 are the result of abduction. Over 90% return home and most of these kids are teen runaways.

Respecting Parents’ Choices

So, why is there so much concern? Again, the perception of danger is greater than the real presence of danger and this informs the intentions of well-meaning people. There has also been a shift in parenting approaches over the years. Where once upon a time, kids were often seen playing without supervision or walking alone at young ages, we have moved to a more supervisory style of parenting. In more disparaging terms, this is referred to as helicopter parenting.

The fact is the Long Island parents’ instincts are correct here. A short stop and wait in the car is harmless; rarely does anything occur to children left unattended for brief periods. Moreover, for an older, school-aged child, the opportunity for independence is hugely beneficial.  In fact, there is a movement started by Lenore Skenazy called Free Range Kids, which encourages parents to let their kids play and explore areas like parks and museums without supervision. Lenore was in the news in 2008 for allowing her then 9-year-old son take the subway alone. She was criticized, but he was fine, so she started the Free Range Kids blog as a result. The premises are simple. Parents know their kids and when they are ready to tackle new responsibilities; kids are much more competent, smart, and capable than we have given them credit for; and the world is not a dangerous place.

Parenting is a highly personal and yet very public matter, which compounds its challenges. But it’s clear we need to trust and respect parents more. If you see a child unattended and have concerns, then feel free to keep an eye on things or even ask questions, but consider waiting to see what happens instead of jumping to conclusions. And if you are a parent facing criminal charges for something innocent like leaving your kid in a car for a time, then call us, we can help.