I also left my kid in the car: Mothers share stories of their own public shamings

One mom's mug shot was on the news. Another almost lost custody. What happened when a "good samaritan" intervened

Published April 28, 2015 2:54AM (EDT)

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In June of last year,  I wrote an essay about my experience of having been filmed by a stranger after I left my four-year-old son in the car to run a brief errand. At the time, I wanted simply to tell the story of what I’d experienced, to process what had seemed a strange and jarring moment in my life as a parent. Last week I wrote about three other mothers who wanted to share similar stories. Since then, many more mothers have contacted me with equally upsetting stories of judgment by strangers for what these mothers saw as rational and reasonable parenting decisions. These episodes have taken place all over the country; some are years old, some very recent. They all raise questions of risk and fear and the burdens of being a mother in this age; they press beneath the surface of many popular philosophies of parenting today. Ultimately, though, these stories are demonstrations of a new or underreported variety of harassment and shaming that, for the women involved, has legal, financial, moral and psychological repercussions. The letters below are being published with their permission. Their names have been omitted. -- Kim Brooks

“Oh, and by the way, I called the cops” 

It had been a long and not-so-good day in mid-April of last year. My kids were 15 months and 6 1/2. My oldest had been invited to sleep over and have a bonfire at a friend’s. It was already getting late, around 7:30 p.m., and my little guy had fallen asleep on the way there. I knew I only had one diaper left and needed to stop. Rite Aid didn't look very busy, and since it was such a pretty spring night in Tennessee, I made the split-second decision to lock up the truck, taking the keys in with me and leaving the kids for a few minutes while I ran in for a pack of diapers.

When I left the store, I noticed a lady who looked vaguely familiar next to my truck. She stopped me and told me she worked for the police department. She told me there was no excuse for leaving my children in the vehicle and went on and on about how dangerous it was. I went to get in my truck and she ordered me to stop and not to touch my door again. At this point I thought she was an off-duty officer. She kept me beside my truck lecturing me for at least five minutes, if not longer. She told me that she had been standing next to my truck for at least 15 minutes. Then I noticed two police cars pull into the parking lot and she says, “Oh, and by the way, I called the cops.”

The officers checked the cameras inside and my receipt. It showed I was inside for nine minutes. I actually knew one of the officers. Turns out the lady that called was his wife. She is a cop now but was not at the time. He told me that what I had done was not OK, and that he was shocked to see it was me. He said that it was dangerous because my oldest could have gotten out of the truck and run across the parking lot and into the road. He asked, “How old is he? Four?” I said “No, six and a half. More than old enough to know better.” I researched later and found that the legal age to stay in the vehicle in my state is seven. They also kept referring to my youngest as an “infant,” I guess because I was still rear-facing him at 15 months.

The officer said that since he had known me for so long, he wasn't going to put me in handcuffs, but that he was going to issue me a citation. I had 10 days to go to the jail and turn myself in. I had never been in trouble prior to this. I had to go to the jail and be finger-printed and have my mug shot taken. I had a court date set and had to hire an attorney. My name, along with what I had done, was printed in our local paper. We also have a community Facebook page that pretty much every person in town is a member of. Some guy I didn't even know posted a copy of the article on there. So much for hoping it would go unnoticed. My phone was blowing up all day. Most humiliating day of my life, I think. The paper didn't give any details and of course people are going to think the worst — like it was a hot day, and I locked them in with a glaring sun shining down.

My attorney was confident it would get dismissed. When I walked into court, I knew that was unlikely. The cop working the front door was the officer who issued the citation. Inside, sitting right up front next to the judge was his wife — the one who called on me! She was apparently the court translator. My attorney still worked a deal where I just had to pay court costs and an extra fine. The charge could also be expunged after a year since I had a clean record.

CPS had to be informed and opened an investigation. The worker came out one time to meet with my husband and the kids and me. She was very nice and complimented how smart and mature my oldest was. She said she did not know why it was even an investigation. She closed it immediately, so that was a huge relief.

After reading the law in my state, I wanted my attorney to fight it. The law states that to be in violation, one of three conditions has to apply, I didn't think any of them did in my case. I was advised that I shouldn't try to act like I hadn't done anything wrong and I should just act sorry and say I learned my lesson and wouldn't do it again. I guess that's pretty much it. I know I got off a lot easier than some of the stories I have read, and I am thankful for that. But the whole ordeal was still a nightmare. Now I won't even leave my kids in the vehicle to walk 15 feet to the ATM. I get them out and try to wrestle and hold my two year old to keep him from actually racing into the road while I conduct my business. Much safer than strapped in his seat, right?

“My mug shot was on the local news”

I’m a mother of four young kids, a lawyer in NYC and a wife. I have always tried to be a great mother and spent years conceiving my children via IVF. On March 30, 2013, my world changed forever when I left my almost nine-year-old, very responsible son in the car with my almost two-year-old sleeping son. My daughter and I were only in the store for 11 minutes. A so-called Good Samaritan called the police on me. I was arrested a week later.

CPS made an emergency visit to my house that night and then three days later. They threatened to take my kids away and told me I was not remorseful enough. We hired an attorney to deal with CPS and a criminal attorney. We were able to hire the best in Westchester County due to my late father-in-law being a well-respected judge. CPS checked my fridge for food and took pictures of all of the kids' bedrooms to make sure they had beds to sleep in. I was horrified! We work very hard to give our children everything and live in an affluent neighborhood. My mug shot was on the local news. Thank goodness for my husband's support and my parents.  I would have never survived it! My children had protective orders against me for one year. We appealed CPS's finding of “indicated of child endangerment,” but the administrative judge ruled against me. They did agree to seal it. The criminal charges were adjudicated after one year.

"Really? Has that ever happened in front of a suburban Gymboree?"

I was a newly divorced mom with four kids under the age of five. When my kids were that little, I was 100 percent certain they were safer strapped into their car seats in a locked, climate-controlled vehicle for five minutes while I ran into the store to get diapers or milk than they would have been if I had to wrangle all four by myself in a busy parking lot. So I would frequently leave them in the car watching a movie if I was going to be gone for under 10 minutes.

Once they were a few years older and the bigger ones could unbuckle their own car seats, I stopped leaving them alone, because I couldn't trust that they wouldn't get out of the car, etc.

Now, my oldest is nine and my youngest is almost five. I have started leaving them in the car for very short periods again, in places with a window so I can see them the whole time. A couple months ago I had picked up the kids from their dad's. He told me they had been up late the night before, and halfway through the hour long drive all four had fallen asleep. I had a return to make at a children's clothing store in an outdoor mall. I locked my doors and pushed my automatic start on my key chain so that the van could be running and stay warm, but have no key in the ignition. I ran in to make my return and was able to see the van the whole time. I stood in line for about five minutes and while my return was being processed, I noticed a woman pacing around my van and trying to peer into the back-tinted windows. I immediately came out of the store and said, “Can I help you?"  She started berating me, saying, “You can't do that!" and "I'm going to call the police" and "people like you shouldn't be allowed to have kids."

I was kind of stunned, but I'd actually read your first article a few months before (ed. note: "The Day I Left My Son in the Car") and realized this could actually mean big trouble for me.  So I told the woman, “What are you talking about? My husband is on the floor in the back asleep with the kids." Complete bullshit, but an advantage of the tinted windows. She looked like she didn't believe me, but at that point I was already backing out and I just left. I was really worried that she had taken down my license plate, but if she did, I haven't heard anything and it's been months.

I was rattled to my core. I am someone who tries really hard to make good decisions. I actually put a good amount of thought into what I did. What frustrates me is that I can't understand what is so extraordinarily dangerous about leaving kids in the car that makes certain people think it is abusive no matter the surrounding circumstances. I've heard people say things like, “Someone could smash in your window and take your kids." Really? Has that ever happened in front of a suburban Gymboree?

Maybe they are concerned that the kid might get hit by a car in the parking lot? Maybe? It confuses me and makes me crazy because it is completely illogical. The part that upsets me most, though, is these people who don't seem so much like Good Samaritans as tattletales. They've taken it upon themselves to decide that no matter the circumstances, you've done something so horrendous they need to call the police or publicly berate and humiliate you. In none of these situations were any of the children even uncomfortable. In my situation, my kids slept through the whole thing. I get less of a "concerned for the children" vibe from these people and more of a "desire to punish" vibe. It reminds me of the stories about life under totalitarian regimes where people are falling all over themselves to tell on their neighbors.

“She was waiting just to see me get arrested”

I have three children, and when this happened, they were eight, four and two. (They're now 19, 15 and 13.) I was going through a divorce from their dad. I was in nursing school. One morning I was on my way to drop the kids off at daycare, and I had received a notification there was a certified letter waiting at the post office. It was 7:30 a.m., it was about 60 degrees outside. I made the decision to run inside and leave them in the car. I was the first person in line. I was in there for about three minutes.

I came outside and there was a lady standing at my car and she told me she had called the police. She was mean and nasty to me. When the police officer arrived I was crying because I realized what COULD happen. He kneeled down next to my open door and talked to me and calmed me down. He told me he had a son and he was guilty of doing the same thing — he had left his son in the car numerous times when he paid for gas. He continued to talk to me for about 15 minutes. Finally the lady that had called the police on me left. He then told me he was not going to charge me with anything. He said he had to wait until the woman left because he knew she was waiting just to see me get arrested. It worked out OK in my situation, but I can totally relate to the moms in your article. Now I am a nurse, and I work in an emergency room. Sometimes when parents bring in their children who get hurt other nurses or doctors judge the parents. I always ask them, “Are you perfect?" I honestly feel like that experience 11 years ago changed my views on so much.

“The view from here is that America is losing it”

I got stopped by the police in Germany, because I drove my fifth grader to school in winter. The police were stopping all the mothers because the traffic was backed up and giving us each a lecture on how it is good for the kids to be able to walk to school (independence, camaraderie, fresh air, exercise). They even said we would get a ticket tomorrow if we drove them to school.

I don’t agree with either what happened to you or what they do in Germany, but as an expat American, I have to say the view from here is that America is losing it. My father lives in constant fear of a home invasion, even though there has not been a burglary in his neighborhood in 60 years.

It's the TV! Constant gruesome images on “Criminal Minds” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” etc. Americans are addicted to these shows, and it is warping their minds. Sure, stuff happens. We were recently burglarized here in Frankfurt, but, hey, I am over it now.

Americans seem to me to have a longing for something to be afraid of or outraged about.

"It was all a show to humiliate and terrify me"

I left my daughters, 4 years old and seven months, in my parked car in front of a store for less than two minutes while I helped my disabled mother into the store and got her onto a motorized shopping cart.  When I came out (carrying her walker!), a police car had me blocked in, and an officer began screaming at me. This was in December, so the place was crawling with Christmas shoppers. He humiliated me until a second officer showed up, and then he went inside to check the surveillance video. When he came back out, he said he wasn't going to arrest me because the Salvation Army bell ringer at the door told him I had asked her to watch my girls and she had agreed (that never happened, but I stuffed a wad of cash in her kettle for helping a mom out).  My four year old was hysterical, sobbing, "Who's going to take care of us if you go to jail?" He hadn't returned my drivers license yet, and he made me sit there while he kept me blocked in, his lights still flashing, turning me into a a spectacle in front of all the shoppers. In the end, nothing happened, and he let me go.  Looking back now, and with a new perspective from having read your account, it seems as if it was all a show to humiliate and terrify me for no really good reason.

That was more than two years ago, and all this time I've never told a soul except my husband about that incident because I thought everyone would think/say what that officer was screaming at me -- that I don't care about my kids, that they're not important to me, that it was a really stupid thing to do. But your points about the risks of being in a moving car vs. a stationary car, abduction by a friend or family member vs. a stranger, etc., have made me realize what I did wasn't totally outside the realm of what's reasonable and safe.  Now I know many intelligent, caring, responsible parents have assessed the risks and made the decision to leave their children in the car for a few minutes.  That doesn't make us bad parents!

“The woman who made the complaint followed me home and parked in front of my house”

When my sons were 10 1/2 and 8 1/2, I left them in the car on a 70 degree day (it was Mother's Day weekend) while I went inside my neighborhood market to get my son a snack. The windows of the car were open and the kids were happy to not be dragged into the store. I live in a very suburban town in Connecticut. The store is so small there is not a parking lot. The parking spaces are about 15 feet from the opening of the store, and I was in the store for no more than five minutes.

When I came back to the car, a man and a woman were standing there. I was completely confused. They immediately asked if the car was mine. When I responded yes, the man walked to the back of my car to block me from moving and the woman yelled for me NOT TO LEAVE because the police were in their way. I was completely flustered and asked the kids what happened. I assumed the kids must have started to fight or play with the horn. They said the man and woman came up to them and asked where their parent was. When they said the store, the couple told the kids not to move and told them the police were on their way. My kids were crying and scared they were in trouble. The people who called the police were screaming at me, telling me I was a horrible mother for leaving my kids in the car. I must have looked scared and concerned as I stood outside my car, waiting for the police, because another driver parked next to me had witnessed the whole exchange and told me I did nothing wrong. He told me there was no need to stay and wait for the police. He told me, “If they want to find you, they will through your license plate.”

I left the market and drove the one mile back to my house. The woman who made the complaint followed me home and parked in front of my house as she waited for the police! At this point, the kids were hysterical. I called my mother and explained what happened. She suggested I call the police. The man was now parked in front of my house also. You would have thought I had robbed a bank or killed someone!

The police officer who responded first went to talk to the Good Samaritans. He then came to my front door and spoke to me. I was obviously concerned and upset. He explained to me that there are NO SPECIFIC laws in Connecticut in terms of what age it is acceptable to leave a child in the car. He did not think my actions were illegal. In fact, he gave the “Good Samaritans" a warning for following me home and told them THEY would be arrested if they came back and continued to harass me. He then wished me a happy Mother's Day and left. Luckily I had a police officer with common sense. My kids are now 12 and 10. They still talk about the "time mommy almost got arrested.”

By Compiled by Salon staff

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