The Problem with “Unattended Child” Laws

By Veronica

After several tragic deaths of children left in hot vehicles, cities and states across the country have been enacting “Unattended Child” laws. Depending on the law, parents are threatened with a misdemeanor and a fine if they are caught leaving a child unattended in a car.

While I understand the desire of lawmakers to prevent another tragic death, I am skeptical that these laws will actually protect children. In the dreadful cases where a child has died from being left in a car, the reason was a parent’s forgetfulness, not a deliberate decision (If you can stomach horrifying stories, this excellent Washington post story covers several of these tragedies. But I warn you against the article – few parents could read it without nightmares). Laws do not prevent forgetfulness.

In fact, I think in some situations these laws may increase a child’s danger. Let me give an example. I have four small children, all under the age of six. Sometimes I must take them all shopping with me at the grocery store. The biggest danger to them at the store are the cars in the parking lot – car accidents are the leading cause of death for children age 2-14. To protect them from this danger, I bring my children through the parking lot by placing the youngest two in the cart and having my oldest two walk with one hand on the cart. The oldest two are within arm’s reach if they decide to run. Once I bring my cart and groceries to my car, I load the groceries, buckle my children into their carseats, and then return the cart.

If my state passes an unattended child law, then that walk back to the cart corral just became a crime. To obey the law, I must manage all four kids to the cart corral and back without a cart. That means holding the two youngest and just hoping the oldest two stay with me, because if they wander or run, I have no free hands to grab them. The threat of arrest creates a choice between the legal option and the safest option.

That is not a choice I should have to make.

When children die in unattended vehicles, it is a heartbreak beyond imagining. I have deepest sympathy for the parents and caregivers responsible. The situations in which I have forgotten my child – for example, once I thought she was sleeping in her room when really she was sitting quietly in the living room – have been harmless, but the forgetfulness was real. I do not delude myself that this could never happen to me. It could happen to anyone. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying to himself. There is no world where accidents do not happen.

But a parent must be free to judge what is the biggest danger to their child in a given situation. The law should not take that away.

51 Responses to The Problem with “Unattended Child” Laws
  1. Kristin Jagelski
    August 19, 2012 | 7:34 pm

    No, you’re wrong. Passing the law would not make it a crime for you to return the cart. This is because your children are not unattended if you can see them.

    Also, please put your children in the vehicle first, then the load, not the other way around.

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