I think I may be a criminal. A couple of months ago I stopped at the bank to make a deposit. The drive through ATM wasn’t operating. My son was being difficult. So I parked in front (in a no-parking zone at that!) ran in and did my business. I left the kids in the car.
I’ve also been known to leave them in the car while I run in to pay for gas — especially if it’s raining or cold and blustery out.
In the United States, according to everything that’s coming out in media reports, I could be arrested for these incidents. In fact, in 19 U.S. states it’s illegal to leave a child unattended in a car at all. So you know those times when you’re wrangling your kids and you’ve got one strapped in to their seat but another has run off across the yard? You run after them, leaving the strapped in child unattended. They are, after all, in a much safer situation than the child running toward traffic.
But you’re not. You could be arrested for leaving the safer child alone for a moment to retrieve the unsafe child. At least in the U.S. you could. Here in Canada it’s a little murkier.
In Canada you’re less likely to get charged in such situations — unless something happens. If your child gets hurt or abducted after you’ve left them alone you will most likely be charged under Section 218 of the Criminal Code. Section 218 deals with child abandonment. It says that if you leave a child under the age of 10 years alone or expose the child to something likely to endanger their life or health or likely to permanently injure them, you are guilty of a crime. Depending on the nature of the crime, you could be looking at 18 months or five years in prison.
In Canada, we kind of leave it up to police to decide whether the child is in danger or whether it was the parents’ fault. In the U.S. it seems to be arrest first, ask questions later.
The law though, leaves that variable that if you even expose a child to a dangerous situation, you could be criminal. Which causes me to question why more parents aren’t arrested for merely putting their children in cars. After all, the highest killer of children in Canada is motor vehicle accidents. And it’s been proven time and again that a high number of parents, and in Newfoundland higher than most provinces, are not using child restraint systems properly – or not using them at all.
So if a parent puts their child in a car and moves that vehicle, they’re exposing them to a much higher danger than if they buckle them in and leave them alone for a few moments. So far this year, absolutely zero Canadian children have died from being left alone in a hot car. Last year, two did. On the other hand, hundreds have died from vehicle accidents, thousands have been seriously injured, and most of the deaths were directly attributed to misusing or not using restraints.
Should we arrest every parent who doesn’t install their car seat properly or who moves their kid up to a booster one inch early?
Of course not.
Every day parents make bad choices. Sometimes they are made without proper access to knowledge and resources. Sometimes they are made on a whim and for convenience moreso than safety. Sometimes they turn out to have been the wrong choice and when they are, they can be horribly wrong.
But criminalizing choices means criminalizing a parent’s ability to respond to situations and to their children. The mother of an autistic child who knows her child will run into traffic if she lets him out in the parking lot can face arrest for leaving her child calmly alone in the car, but not for doing what she personally knows is risky and unstrapping his buckle and opening the door.
That is why, in Canada, police are given a certain amount of discretion in determining criminal actions with respect to “child abandonment.” And that is also why our laws aren’t quite so clear cut. I’m not sure if we’re all criminals or none of us are. But I do know that most of us are making the best choices with our resources and abilities at the time we make them.
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