Carla Neems, a month shy of turning 7, was scootering home from school when she was hit by a garbage truck and killed.
A two-year inquest was held and last week the coroner, Tim Scott, finally issued his report. He blamed the parents, saying it was "unacceptable" that the girl was allowed to get home without them. Apparently every heart-wrenching child tragedy, no matter how unpredictable or rare, is the fault of a bad mom or dad.
So here's the story. It took place in New Zealand. Carla was coming home from school, which is about half a mile from her home. She'd done this daily with her sisters, who are 8 and 10, for a year. On May 2, 2017, she was with an older friend until the very last bit of the trip, which she made by herself. When she scootered in front of the truck, less than a block from her home, the driver didn't see her. He has been acquitted of reckless driving.
The parents are not getting off that easy.
Coroner Scott declared, "I do not accept that it was acceptable for Carla to go to and from school in the care of her older siblings -- and part of the way home alone. The siblings were too young to be vested with that responsibility. Sadly the confidence that Mr and Mrs Neems had about Carla's road safety was misplaced and flies in the face of what happened," he said.
The problem is that looking back at any tragedy, it's easy to say, "If only X hadn't happened, we wouldn't be mourning today." That can make it feel as if "X" is so inherently and -- in retrospect -- inevitably dangerous that it should NEVER be allowed. When the coroner says the parents' trust in Carla "flies in the face of what happened," he is saying they should have known this was going to happen.
This is not only the cruelest possible twist of the knife, it is also wrong. If a child falls down the stairs and dies, does that "fly in the face" of parents who thought it was okay to raise kids in a two-story house? Would the coroner say how reckless they were? If a child slips in the tub, does that "fly in the face" of parents stupid enough to believe it was okay for their child to take a bath? How dare they have allowed such a thing?
They dared because, of course, there is no such thing as a completely risk-free life. It is unfair and cruel to blame parents for trusting the odds -- for not living every second as if an anvil was about to fall on their heads.
And yet the news site "Stuff" in New Zealand has praised the coroner's declaration, saying it will save lives.:
Maybe Scott could have found more compassionate words to comfort a grieving family; maybe he felt a need to draw a line in so much unnecessary death and shock people out of their complacency.
Who is complacent when it comes to the death of a child?
In fact, we are so completely shaken by it, that we have to immediately turn it into a lesson -- a light, a blessing in disguise! -- so that we don't have to stare into the abyss that is cruel fate. And that is exactly how the Stuff editorial proceeds: "Carla's death is not meaningless; it has inspired an honest assessment of risk that will hopefully save many lives."
Perhaps that is true, in terms of the garbage truck design. Assessors came to realize the trucks have a blind spot and have since worked to eradicate it. They've also made the trucks even more visible. But the coroner stating that children should not be allowed to venture outside on their own till age 8 or 9, even when parents believe they should be allowed to do so, is what writer Jal Breitnauer in The Spinoff sees as a tipping point:
We have a collective choice to make. We can either see Neems’ death for what it was, a tragic accident that might have been prevented by sensors on the rubbish truck and/or procedural changes, or we can join in with Scott’s moral panic, and start judging those families who...let go of their kids and allow them to grow. If we go down that road, we have to ask ourselves what type of society we are inviting.
Believing that only irresponsible parents allow their kids any independence -- even the chance to be less than a block away from home, during daylight hours, on their scooters -- ushers in a society that treats children as if they are always on the brink of death. That is a hallmark of paranoia, not prudence.
If all children are that vulnerable, even in everyday situations, parents are required to take on the job of prison wardens/ICU nurses to keep their near-death, flight-risk children under strict surveillance. No one is free. Not the kids, not the parents, and not the culture, which is now yoked to the notion that all accidents are preventable with enough vigilance.
That is a harsh, terrifying society, so eager for the false promise of perfect safety that it is giving up a source of real safety -- the competence that comes from independence.
At Let Grow, we believe in teaching kids to take care on the streets. To stop look and listen. To check both ways. We also love reflectors, lights and bells on bikes and the like. But when it comes to blame, we believe in mourning with the Neems, rather than cruelly pretending this was their fault. - Lenore Skenazy