It pains me to say it, but New Jersey is suddenly a light unto us all. Last week, its Supreme Court ruled that it isn’t automatically child abuse to let your kid wait in the car while you pick up the dry cleaning.
We’ve been warned these past 10 years that kids are in danger any time we leave them in the car. Public service announcements say, “Never leave your child in the car — not even for a minute!” Onlookers who spot a child in a car go crazy with rage. One mom I know had just buckled her child into the car seat and went to return her shopping cart. When she got back maybe 30 seconds later, a woman was screaming at her, “She could have died!”
But this is bunk. Most of us spent part of our childhood waiting in the car while our moms ran errands, and no one called it abuse. Hardly! I had one friend who looked forward to the car waits with her sister because they’d tilt the passenger seat all the way back and play “dentist.”
We refuse to concede there’s a difference between waiting in the car for 10 minutes on a mild afternoon and waiting in the car for 10 hours in the Mojave Dessert. This obtuseness explains why, back in 2009, a mom who let her 19-month-wait in the car during a five-to-10-minute errand at a dollar store in South Plainfield, was found guilty of child abuse by the state’s Department of Children and Families. The law there states parents cannot “recklessly create a risk of severe injury.”
But somehow it didn’t matter that it was 55 degrees that day, or that the child slept peacefully through this whole “ordeal.” The mere fact of letting a kid wait in the car was enough for the department to place the mom on New Jersey’s Child Abuse and Neglect Registry. Every state has one — it is like the Sex Offender Registry, just not public. Once you’re officially a “child abuser,” good luck getting a job in teaching, day care, or nursing.
This mom asked the child protection agency for a hearing in which she could try to defend herself and get off the registry. When this was denied, she appealed, but New Jersey’s appellate court denied her, too. The three-judge panel said there was no way she deserved a hearing because what was there to hear? She’d left her kid in the car, which automatically made her a child abuser because something bad could have happened.
That’s true — but also highly unlikely. Of the 30–40 kids who die in hot cars every year, 80 percent were forgotten there for hours, or climbed in when no one was looking and couldn’t get out. They were not waiting in the car while mom ran into the store to pick up the pizza.
What’s more, law professor David Pimentel points out that anything could also happen when the child was being walked through the parking lot. In fact, more kids die each year in parking lots and driveways than waiting in cars.
And if you want to talk about a bigger risk to children, it isn’t waiting in the car, it is riding in one. The No. 1 way children die in America is as car passengers. So if we really want to crack down on parents who put their kids in danger, we’d have to scream things like, “How dare you drive that child to her piano lesson? She could die!”
We don’t do that because we are not constantly warned, “Never let a child ride in a car, not even for a minute!”
So last week, the court agreed with the mom’s lawyer, Sean Marotta, that we cannot expect parents to ensure a zero-risk childhood.
So ruled the court, by a vote of 7–0. Which is why New Jersey is now a beacon of sanity in our parent-shaming and blaming country.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and the author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.