Have you ever -- just for a minute -- left your infant or toddler asleep in a car on a street or in a parking lot? You may have had to unload a car full of groceries, or drop off another kid at school, or go pay for gas at the kiosk. The child may have been sick, the weather foul, extenuating circumstances galore ...
Well, watch out. According to a recent case, reported by the Associated Press, when you return to your car, there may be more than your child waiting for you. I'm not talking about a tragic accident or a kidnapper. I'm talking handcuffs and charges of endangerment.
Such was the surprise that befell Chicago mother Treffly Coyne on Dec. 8, 2007, when she returned to her car after walking her two elder daughters and one of their friends to donate coins to a Salvation Army kettle a few yards away in front of a Wal-Mart. She'd locked and alarmed the car in a loading zone in front of the store on a stormy night, when a police officer spotted her 2-year-old asleep in her car seat. Informing Coyne that she had broken the law by leaving her child unattended in the car, the police officer put Coyne in handcuffs and took the toddler into child protective custody.
In the midst of the drama (according to an enraged press release from Coyne supporters), the police then forgot about the three little girls who were left alone in front of the Wal-Mart. When the father arrived at the scene, he found the girls. Coyne was eventually charged with child endangerment and obstructing a peace officer -- which together can carry a prison sentence of up to a year.
The rest is blogospheric history. Predictably, the case unleashed a firestorm of opinions -- mostly from parents who suggested that the nanny state had gone too far. The tirades tended to be more sweeping and philosophical than one might have imagined, with a simmering suspicion that at any moment conscientious, loving parents may find themselves accused of the most outrageous acts of cruelty and neglect. Exhibiting a characteristic intensity, one Yahoo commenter concluded: "It's just another sign of the apocalypse."
Indeed, the case revealed a discrepancy between a common practice in our car-dependent (and often pedestrian-antagonistic), built environment and the strictest interpretation of the law -- that no child should ever be left inside a car, no matter for how short a time, no matter how nearby the child's guardian. As many irate parents pointed out, in order to not break the "leave no child left behind in a car" law, one would need to pump gas while holding the baby in one arm.
On the other hand, Kids and Cars, an organization dedicated to preventing non-traffic-related injuries and deaths of children, told the AP that innocent mistakes like Coyne's lead to ten of thousands of deaths every year. On its Web site, the group offers "quick links" to a variety of vehicle-related atrocities: back-overs, front-overs, car theft with a child inside, death by heatstroke, incidents involving power windows and vehicles set in motion by a child. Last month saw the final passage of a law cosponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. John Dingle that would require safety devices preventing back-overs and power window accidents to be included on all new vehicles. The difficult truth is that our cars are both dangerous as moving playrooms and a great source of security from our anonymous landscapes filled with parking lots and moving cars. And the cars that are most associated with family security, fat honkin' SUVs, kill the most children in back-over accidents because their sightlines are so poor.
Coyne's trial was scheduled for today but at the eleventh hour the court announced it would be dropping the charges. Perhaps the threat of angry soccer moms and dads storming the suburban courthouse was enough to make them rethink the notion of prosecuting a case against a middle-class mother whose children spend their leisure time collecting coins for the poor. Of course, I couldn't help wondering how the story might have played out had the mother been African-American, say, and poor. Would the legions of warrior parents have come to her rescue?