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The day it happened was no different from most; I was worried, and I was running late. I was worried because in a few hours’ time I was going to be enduring a two-and-a-half hour flight with my kids, ages 1 and 4. I was running late because, like many parents of small children, I often find there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
We were visiting my family and I was eager to get home to my husband. My 1-year-old daughter had just gone down for a nap when, in the process of packing, I realized that my son’s headphones, the ones he used to watch a movie on the plane, had broken. I called across the house to my mother that I was going to run to the store to replace them.
“Me too,” my son said.
I asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to stay home with Grandma. “You hate going to the store,” I reminded him.
“No I don’t!” he said. I should have seen what was going on — my parents had been letting him play with the iPad in the car and he was trying to score the extra screen time. We got in my mother’s minivan and drove a mile up the road, through the sleepy subdivision where I’d grown up, the sort of subdivision where kids ride bikes in cul-de-sacs and plenty of people don’t bother to lock their doors, then we parked in the recently erected, nearly empty strip mall. I had two hours to get the headphones, get home, get my 1-year-old daughter up from her nap and fed and changed, get everyone to the airport, through security, and onto a plane.
“I don’t want to go in,” my son said as I opened the door.
“What do you mean you don’t want to go in? You wanted to come.”
He was tapping animated animals on a screen, dragging them from one side to the other. “I don’t want to go in. I changed my mind.”
I tried to make my voice both calm and firm. “Simon,” I said (not his real name but the name I’ll use here). “If we don’t get your headphones, you won’t be able to watch a movie on the flight. It’s a long flight. If you can’t watch a movie on the flight you’re going to be a very, very, very unhappy boy. It will just take a minute. Now come on. We’re running late.”
He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I’d come to recognize as a sort of pre-tantrum agitation. “No, no, no, no, no! I don’t want to go in,” he repeated, and turned back to his game.
I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I’ve been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.
He didn’t die. He wasn’t kidnapped or assaulted or forgotten or dragged across state lines by a carjacker. When I returned to the car, he was still playing his game, smiling, or more likely smirking at having gotten what he wanted from his spineless mama. I tossed the headphones onto the passenger seat and put the keys in the ignition.
Over the past two years, I’ve replayed this moment in my mind again and again, approaching the car, getting in, looking in the rearview mirror, pulling away. I replay it, trying to uncover something in the recollection I hadn’t noticed at the time. A voice. A face. Sometimes I feel like I can hear something. A woman? A man? “Bye now.” Something. But I can’t be sure.
We flew home. My husband was waiting for us beside the baggage claim with this terrible look on his face. “Call your mom,” he said.
I called her, and she was crying. When she’d arrived home from driving us to the airport, there was a police car in her driveway.
* * *
Every year, 30 to 40 children, usually under the age of 6, die after being left alone in cars. Their deaths (usually by suffocation), are slow, torturous, unspeakably tragic. In some instances, they are the result of clear-cut neglect, but more often, they occur because of a change in routine — usually the father drops off at daycare but today it’s the mom and she is tired or harried and forgets the kid is with her and leaves him there for hours. I was aware of these tragedies long before the day I left my son, because, like most anxious, at times over-protective mothers, I spend a not insignificant portion of my time reading about and thinking about and worrying about all the terrible things that can happen to the two little people I’ve devoted my life to protecting.
I know that on a 75-degree day, a closed car can become an oven. I know that a home with an unfenced swimming pool is as dangerous as one with a loaded gun. I know how important it is to install car seats correctly, to adjust and fasten the straps regularly. When my kids were babies I always put them to sleep on their backs, though they hated it. I treated small, chokeable objects like arsenic, put up gates on all our stairways (not the tension-rod kind that can be pushed over, but the kind you bolt into the wall). I immunized them against everything immunizable, sliced their hotdogs lengthwise and removed the casing, made sure their plates and cups were BPA free, limited their screen time, slathered them in sunscreen on sunny days. When my more carefree friends say things like, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I usually have an answer. Sometimes I fantasized about moving with my family to a sun-drenched island in the Mediterranean where my children could spend their days frolicking freely on the beach without worry of speeding cars or communicable diseases, but I never confuse this fantasy with the reality we live in, the reality of risk and danger, the reality that terrible things happen to good, well-meaning people every second of every day.
And so, it came as more than a shock to me when, on the way home from the airport, I listened to a voice mail from an officer at my family’s local police department explaining that a bystander had noticed me leaving my son in the car, had recorded the incident using a phone’s camera, and had then contacted the police. By the time the police arrived, I had already left the scene, and by the time they looked up the license plate number of the minivan and traced it to my parents, I was flying home.
I’d never been charged with a crime before, so the weeks that followed were pure improvisation. I hired a lawyer to talk to the police on my behalf. I sought advice and support from those I loved and trusted. I tried to stay calm. My lawyer told me he’d had a productive conversation with the officer involved, that he’d explained I was a loving and responsible mother who’d had a “lapse in judgment,” and that it seemed quite possible charges would not be pressed. For a while, it looked like he was right. But nine months later, a few minutes after dropping my kids off at school, I was walking to a coffee shop when my cellphone rang. Another officer asked if I was Kim Brooks and if I was aware there was a warrant out for my arrest.
* * *
My friends and I sometimes play this game, the did-our-parents-really-let-us-do-that game. We recall bike ramps, model rockets, videotaping ourselves setting toys on fire. Many remember taking off on bikes alone, playing in the woods for hours without adult supervision, crawling through storm drains to follow creek beds, latchkey afternoons, monkey bars installed over slabs of concrete. My husband recalls forts built in the trunk of the station wagon on long road trips. I remember standing up in the back of my father’s LeBaron convertible while he cruised around the neighborhood, or spending an hour lying low on the seat of our station wagon, feet against the window, daydreaming or reading in crowded parking lots while my mother got groceries or ran other boring errands. One friend tells me how, from 7-Elevens, to Kroger, to various banks, schools and offices, he was left alone in the front passenger seat of a convertible Mustang for a good portion of his childhood, primarily because he was shy and wanted to not have to meet new people. For people of our generation, living a suburban childhood, the car was central to our lives, not simply a mode of transportation but in many ways, an extension of our home.
We all knew, of course, that cars were dangerous. Moving cars. Every few years there would be a terrible accident. In the fourth grade, a local mother and her three children
were killed on their way to school. A few years later, three teenagers were maimed and paralyzed by a head-on collision with a tree behind our neighbor’s house. But these horror stories never penetrated the inside of our own family car, which seemed infinitely safe, cozy even.
In the months of fear and shame that followed my being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, I continuously analyzed my own mind-set that day, trying to understand how I did something that both a bystander and a police officer considered criminally dangerous, and the best I could come up with was the theory that I’d been lulled by nostalgia into a false sense of security. So many of my childhood memories involved unsupervised time in cars in parking lots just like the one where I’d left my son. I wondered in the days after it happened if being back home, out of the city, had given me a sort of momentary amnesia. I’d forgotten that more than 25 years had passed since those unsupervised childhood hours. And a lot could change in 25 years, I thought. People were always saying how the world was a more dangerous place than it had been when I was growing up. I had no reason not to believe them. I felt guilty and ashamed. I felt I’d put my child at risk for my own momentary convenience. I knew I wasn’t a terrible mother, but I’d done something terrible, dangerous, and now I’d suffer the consequences, go to court, pay legal fees, live with a criminal record. This was how I thought about what had taken place.
At the same time, I didn’t really understand the legal context of what was happening
“I don’t get it,” I said to the lawyer. “Contributing to the delinquency of a minor? That makes no sense. It sounds like I was buying him beer.”
He laughed. He told me he understood my confusion about the charge, but that it wasn’t that unusual. A few years before, the state had tried to pass an ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor to leave a child under 6 alone in a vehicle if the conditions within the vehicle or in the immediate vicinity of the vehicle presented a risk to the health or safety of the child. The penalty for a first offense would be a $100 civil penalty, in other words, a ticket. But the legislation didn’t pass, and so instead, the act of leaving a kid in a car would continue to fall into a legal gray area. The lawyer explained that the crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor included “rendering a minor in need of services.” So, for example, he said, “If you’d left him there and not come back, someone from social services would have needed to come, bring him in, make sure he was safe and such.”
“But I did come back. I came back after a few minutes.”
“A gray area,” he repeated. Then he went on to remind me that in my case, it wasn’t just that I’d left him, but that someone had seen me do it and stood there and recorded it and called the cops and given them the video.
“A good samaritan,” I said. “They couldn’t have just confronted me directly?”
He laughed again, then grew serious. “Look,” he said. “Here’s how I look at it. I’m glad we live in a world where people are watching out for kids. I’m glad that when someone thinks they’re seeing something wrong take place, they get involved. But in your case, what happened wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t neglectful. It was a temporary lapse in judgment. This is what we need to stress.”
I picture this concerned someone standing beside my car, inches from my child, holding a phone to the window, recording him as he played his game on the iPad. I imagined the person backing away as I came out of the store, watching me return to the car, recording it all, not stopping me, not saying anything, but standing there and dialing 911 as I drove away. Bye now. At this point, almost a year had passed since it happened. I could hear my lawyer shuffling papers. I looked down and saw that my hands were shaking. My hands were shaking, but unlike before, I wasn’t afraid. I was enraged.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It doesn’t sound to me like I committed the crime I’m being charged with. I didn’t render him in need of services. He was fine. Maybe I should plead ‘not guilty,’ go to trial.”
His response was instant and unequivocal. “I don’t think you want to do that. This is going to be handled in juvenile court, and the juvenile courts are notorious for erring on the side of protecting the child.” I can’t remember if he said it or only implied it, but either way, the warning took root. You don’t want to lose your kids over this. It was the first time the idea had skulked out of the darkest, most anxious corners of my mind. My lawyer and I said we’d talk later. I thought I was going to be sick.
* * *
When I first began to process what had happened, I worried that, wrong or right, guilty or innocent, what I’d done, what I’d let happen, would seem abhorrent to anyone I told, that it was the moral equivalent of driving drunk, not evil, maybe, but reckless and stupid. Unfortunately, I’d never been much good at keeping secrets, particularly during periods of stress (my husband once asked if I’d ever kept anything from anyone). And so, as the months passed, I told people, and mostly, I was relieved and surprised by how supportive my friends and family were.
My parents felt the whole case was overblown and that I hadn’t done anything any parent over 50 hadn’t done a hundred times. My husband’s family helped us with the legal costs and put us in touch with friend who was a lawyer and agreed to talk me through the process. As it turned out, a similar thing had happened to his sister, and from what he’d heard it wasn’t uncommon. “These people, I swear, I think they sit in parking lots waiting for this to happen. If only you could put people in jail for being jerks.”
Other friends in whom I confided were equally supportive. One told of an acquaintance who’d had a similar experience. She’d gone to walk the dog around the block while her baby was napping and ended up with a year of weekly visits from DCSF. Another was a high school drama teacher and, after someone observed him fake-pushing a student in the fight scene of a school play rehearsal, put him on paid leave until a social worker could interview him in his home.
And even those friends who’d never had these harrowing experiences had difficulty believing I had really gotten into such big trouble. “I mean,” one friend said, comforting me, “were those like your best five minutes of parenting? No. If you were nominated for parent of the year and they needed a clip, would you submit that one? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean you committed a crime!” Other friends tried to soothe me with stories of their own errors and oversights. Kids forgotten and then found seven grocery aisles over, babies rolling off changing tables when Mom went to answer the phone. And still others tried to make me feel better by reminding me that regardless of what I had done on that single afternoon, most days I was a typical, overprotective, over-anxious, neurotic, independence-stifling, middle-class parent.
Who am I to judge was, to my surprise and relief, the most common response when I told people what had happened, though there were one or two exceptions. When I asked one very close, very dear friend if she thought I’d done something so terribly bad, she answered somberly,“Well, I think you made a bad decision.” That was one extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, a friend who writes and blogs about parenting issues asserted that the whole thing was ridiculous. “Who in the world hasn’t left their kid in the car for a minute while they run a quick errand. I’ve done it!” She grew quiet for a moment, and I thought maybe she was reconsidering this pronouncement. But when she spoke again it was to say, “You know who you need to talk to about this? You need to talk to Lenore Skenazy.”
* * *
I reached out to Skenazy early this year through a Facebook message, and she got back to me right away, saying she was happy to talk.
A former columnist for the New York Daily News and New York Sun, she was launched into the national spotlight in 2008 when she wrote a column about her decision to let her 9-year-old son take the subway by himself. The column resulted in a flood of both outrage and admiration, and spurred Skenazy to found the Free Range Kids movement, a movement dedicated to, in Skenazy’s words, “fighting the belief that our kids are in constant danger.”
As a mother who has often felt as though my kids are in constant danger, I wasn’t sure what to expect of her, if I was going to end up talking to a fringe “expert” who would tell me to forgo seat belts and bike helmets and vaccines to help my kids toughen up. Instead, Skenazy comes across as calm, direct and adamant in her ideas.