September 21st, 2021


Slapping the 'Child Abuse' Label on Decent, Loving Parents

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published May 19, 2015

 Slapping the 'Child Abuse' Label on Decent, Loving Parents

Here's the case: A few years back, a mom left her son in the car for what everyone agrees was less than 10 minutes on a not-broiling day to run an errand. The toddler slept through the whole "ordeal," but the mom was found guilty of neglect, even upon appeal, when the three appellate judges ruled that they didn't have to list the "parade of horribles" that could have happened to the child.

Which is, of course, fantasy as policy. Just because the judges could imagine a kidnapping or a carjacking or a big bad wolf doesn't mean that these are at all likely. They aren't. As The Washington Post recently confirmed, "there's never been a safer time to be a kid in America." What's more, when I was researching crime stats for my own book, I found that if for some reason you wanted your kid to be abducted by a stranger, the amount of time you'd have to leave him outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen is several hundred thousand years.

Not 10 minutes.

So to accuse parents of negligence for not acting as if a far-fetched, rare danger is imminent all the time, well, you could arrest me because I have knives in my kitchen. What if my children threw them at each other? What if they stuffed them in a pillow and had a deadly pillow fight? What if they decided to play Islamic State and used them to behead my cat? (I don't have a cat, but you could fantasize about that, too, once reality is no longer a barrier to prosecution.)

Here's how the wonderful legal scholar David Pimentel, a professor at Ohio Northern University's law school, explained what is up:

"A thorough investigation showed that in all other respects she was a good mother, and not a threat to the health and safety of any of her four children, so the investigation was closed and all criminal charges dropped. But because the incident was confirmed, she was labeled a child abuser and included on New Jersey's child abuse central registry. ...

"If the N.J. Supreme Court upholds the lower court, child-left-in-car cases in New Jersey will be very straightforward. ... It will be virtually automatic that the parent will be branded as a 'child abuser' for the rest of his or her life."

A child abuser! Even though the far more dangerous thing parents do every day is drive their kids anywhere. That's the No. 1 way kids die — as car passengers. So, as one of my clever friends put it, "if leaving a kid in a car a few minutes on a cool day is child abuse, driving him to the store is attempted murder."

To label all parents as "negligent" because they let their kids wait in the car during an errand is just like labeling the Meitivs in Maryland "negligent" for letting their kids go outside unsupervised. Nothing bad did happen to those kids as they walked home from the park. Nothing bad was likely to happen to the kids; we are at a 50-year crime low, and Silver Spring is hardly a hotbed of crime, as it was recently voted the "most caring" suburb in America. But because some cops and Child Protective Services workers could imagine something terrible happening, the parents are under investigation.

Fantasy cannot be the basis for policy. If it is, any made-up idea can be used as rationale to lock folks up or put them on a list.

Parents must be allowed to make decisions — even ones that others consider suboptimal — as long as they are not putting their children in immediate, obvious and indisputable harm's way.

Like letting them get anywhere near those delusional New Jersey appellate court judges.

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