Let’s Debate: You Spot Kids Alone in a Car, Do You Call the Police?

henrysleepsPop quiz: You spot two kids alone in a car on a hot day, what do you do? Do you always call for help immediately? Do you wait around to make sure the caregiver returns in a timely manner? If the kids appear to be of a certain age do you continue on your merry way?

Dan Kois debates all of the above actions in an article on Slate after spotting two girls left alone in a car next to his on a hot day. Kois acknowledges that, clearly, if you spot a baby alone in a hot car you should call for help immediately. But what if the child is older?

Your instinct, assuming you are a caring human being, might be to always call for help, and that’s what Tabitha Kelly, bureau chief of Kois’ county’s Department of Child and Family Services urged him to do every time he sees an unattended child left in a vehicle. But is that really the wisest course of action? Let’s dig a little deeper.

What if you’ve left your 7-year-old in the car, at his or her request, as you run into school to pick up a younger child? What if it takes you 15 minutes? What if when you returned, some stranger is standing near your car and informs you they called the police? What if you are charged? What if your ability to parent is questioned by authorities?

That premise is not far-fetched. It happened to Kim Brooks, a mother who wrote an essay for Salon about being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor when a passerby took a photo of her 4-year-old in the car and called police as Brooks ran an errand for five minutes on a cool day. Brooks subsequently spent thousands on legal fees and ended up being sentenced to 100 hours of community service.

It could just as easily have been Babble’s Meredith Carroll serving those 100 hours as says she used to leave her daughter alone in the car when her children were younger:

“I leave my 6-month-old baby in the car alone sometimes. When we bought a new car last year, we had a remote start installed. One of the benefits is that you can start the car remotely while also leaving the doors locked. And even if someone still managed to get into the locked car, it cannot be driven without the key in the ignition. That has meant that I’ve been able to leave my infant daughter in a heated car while I go inside to pick up my 3-year-old from preschool on many days this winter.”

I consider myself to be an excellent parent but have also left my sleeping baby in a locked car on cool days as I run quick errands, usually within sight of the vehicle.

So where is the line? Is a sleeping 6-month-old in an air-conditioned car really in danger? Similarly, how great is the danger to an 8-year-old who can clearly leave the car if they feel uncomfortable?

At what point is our right to parent in the way we feel is best being taken away by overzealous helicopter folks who seek to undermine our authority? As Kois notes on Slate, “It’s difficult to delineate on the fly between a situation in which a child is actually in peril and one that simply makes me uncomfortable” and admits that after weighing all options that “it’s hard to envision a scenario in which me calling the police would have accomplished anything positive.”

What do you think? Is the only right move to call the cops because you’d rather be safe than sorry? But what if you’re taking action against a great parent who is running a simple errand? Where do you drawn the line?

Image source: Monica Bielanko

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