Lately there has been a lot of discussion about children in cars. Women are being arrested and charged with remarkable crimes like picking up toilet paper while leaving a sleeping child in the car just outside for periods of 3-5 minutes. People online admit they would immediately call 911 if they saw a child in the car, regardless of circumstance.
Folks, what happened to common sense? What happened to being part of that society where people help each other out instead of condemn without information? Instead of quickly judging and acting harshly, possibly causing irrevocable damage to the child in the form of foster homes or removal from a parent, can we try to be a tiny bit more rational? A bit more helpful?
I’m only one mom, but I would like to share what I think of as common sense questions to ask yourself before you dial those three numbers and change a family’s life forever.
Question #1: What’s the weather like?
This has to be stated first because if it’s too hot or too cold (and this needs to take into account that inside a car will be much hotter in the summer than it is outside and can be very cold in the winter in some places) and you can’t see a parent nearby and haven’t seen a parent nearby (e.g., if you see a mom pumping gas then going to pay for said gas, this likely isn’t the emergency), call 911 immediately and try to break the glass (not next to the baby but another seat, don’t need to have shards of glass on the child) to get the child out immediately. This is the one situation in which you simply don’t mess around.
Question #2: What kind of parking lot is it?
Are you in the parking lot of a huge mall? An office building? Or at a gas station or just outside the butcher or pizza store or convenience store? This can help put things into context. A child in a locked car in the parking lot of an office building or large mall is more likely to have been accidentally (or intentionally) forgotten than a child just outside the butcher. The trips into the butcher or pizza place or gas station (for example) are also likely to be 5 minute runs whereas a trip to the mall or office is likely to be hours.
Now, presuming you’ve answered question #1 in a manner that means you’re comfortable waiting a bit, I would say regardless of where you are, give the parent the benefit of the doubt and wait 5 minutes. See what happens. Does the parent come out of the butcher 1 minute later with a package and hop back into the car? Your watching is you taking a small role in our society to ensure the child is safe just in case (because statistically not much is likely to happen when the weather is cooperating). Now if a parent doesn’t arrive out or see you and come out to tell you they have an eye on their car and child, you can consider calling someone, once you establish the answer to questions #3a and b.
Question #3: (a) How old is the child? (b) Is the child distressed?
The way in which we should consider responding will vary greatly based on the age of the child in the car. An infant left alone should elicit our concern more than a 3- or 4-year-old and they should elicit more concern than an 8-year-old. Are there multiple children in the car, with an older sibling looking out for a younger one? The age and number of kids should influence your actions. And yes, an 8-year-old is capable of looking after a younger sibling for 5 minutes.
Mixed in with this is the concern over how distressed the child is. In hot weather, a child may seem to be sleeping yet may have already passed out which is why I said you don’t mess around no matter what the answers to the other questions are. Any child who is crying in the car is in need of help. This means you may need to call 911 or break a window or try to identify the parent asap. Your choice of action will depend on where you are. If you’re at a gas station, probably no need to call 911 before you pop your head into the station and ask around for the parent. If you’re in a shopping mall parking lot, calling 911 or breaking a window is a much better response.
But what if the child isn’t upset? At this stage, no matter where you are (again, provided there’s no concern about the weather), waiting 5 minutes is something that allows you to keep an eye on the child while seeing if you’re dealing with a parent quickly running in somewhere or someone who has actually forgotten or neglected their child. Again, if no parent arrives and you’re in a spot where finding the parent would be nearly impossible (like an office or mall parking lot), calling 911 is a logical step.
Question #4: What kind of neighbourhood are you in?
A final consideration that needs to be made is what kind of neighbourhood are you in. If you live in a high-crime area, you may be more inclined to call 911 immediately because the risks are higher of someone stealing the car or harming the child. If, however, you’re in a safe area, these risks are quite minimal and the only considerations should be the state of the child and the length of time you give a parent to return.
In short, unless there is a pressing need to call 911, giving a parent five minutes to return should not be asking too much in a society where we ought to care for others instead of being ready to ruin their lives. Remember: Calling 911 opens a big can of worms for a family and it may be a parent who made a decision about what they believed was best for their child. These are not parents that need CPS on their backs or criminal records. If you really feel strongly about it, stick around and talk to the parent about your concerns. Perhaps you’ll make them consider something else, but if not, it’s not because they don’t love their children, but because they simply are weighing the risks in a different manner to you, and they may not be wrong. The overarching concern for everyone should be the safety and well-being of the child and having a parent arrested for paying for gas or picking up a pizza is not in line with that.