Folks -- America has got to stop equating a rational parenting decision (letting your kids wait in the car a few minutes) with criminal wrongdoing. This great piece in The Appeal by Joshua Vaughn explains what happens when we collectively pretend that something safe is unsafe:
A NEW MORAL PANIC TARGETS MOMS
In Pennsylvania, mothers are harshly penalized for leaving children unattended in vehicles, even for several minutes.
Before Amanda Forst could answer any of police Sgt. Keith Stambaugh’s questions, she asked one of her own: “Are you going to take my children?”
Earlier that day, on Aug. 18, 2018, Forst had driven to a Kohl’s department store in Silver Spring Township, a small municipality near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She had her three children—ages 7, 5, and 2—along with her. Forst let the children stay in her van while she ran into the store to buy a few things. She would be gone for about 10 minutes.
While Forst was in the store, a passerby saw the children in the van and called county authorities. Cumberland County 911 dispatched Stambaugh, and Kohl’s alerted shoppers about the children over the public address system. Forst ran out of the store and drove off because she feared that the police would take her children away, she later told Stambaugh. She returned to the store minutes after leaving and waited for the police to arrive.
When he arrived on the scene, Stambaugh arrested and charged Forst with three counts of reckless endangerment, three counts of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle and a count of careless driving. Forst’s 10-minute errand now meant she was facing up to two years in jail.
Vaughn goes on to trace the origin of our car-wait panic, which began in the '80s when "stranger danger" was first sweeping the country, and missing kids' pictures were on milk cartons -- without anyone bothering to explain that the vast majority were runaways or taken by parents in contentious custody cases.
After that, the concern about hot cars started to grow -- a very legitimate fear if a child is forgotten in a car for a long time. But the public was encouraged to assume anytime any kids were waiting in a car, however briefly, they were in danger, which is not the case. A brief wait is not only safe, it is safer than being taken out and crossing the parking lot. As truly gut-wrenching as cases of hyperthermia are, arresting moms who let their kids wait in the car for five minutes will not bring back the children forgotten there for five hours. The two situations have nothing in common.
And so, Vaughn writes:
Though the incident outside the Kohl’s occurred nearly one year ago, Forst’s case is still unresolved. In the meantime, she has incurred—and paid—hundreds of dollars in fines and fees, including nearly $200 for the county’s plea fee, $50 for the cost of prosecution, $100 for the disposition program and $23 for an expungement fee.
In August, Forst is expected to enter an accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, in which she will spend the next six months to two years under probation-like supervision and perform community service with the expectation that the charges will be dismissed after successful completion. If Forst does not finish the program, Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert could prosecute her.
What looks like a judgment of danger is really a judgment of the parent, who is sent spiraling.
It is time for this to stop. We can help turn the tide by bringing rationality to bear, and sharing our thoughts.