Leaving Children in the Car: Illegal

by Cardswitcher on September 16, 2013

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Most parents, no matter where they are from or what culture they are part of, hold as their natural right authority over all decisions about raising and caring for their children. Certainly most reasonable people would acknowledge that in extreme cases of clear abuse and endangerment, the authorities should intervene on behalf of the child. However, most parents probably believe that within extremely broad standards they are the ultimate authority in how to care for their offspring. And while in general this may be true, the fact is most parents are quite unaware of just how limited their authority is under much of U.S. State law.

From Delinquency to Endangerment

In almost all states in the U.S., it is a crime to leave a minor unattended for any length of time in an automobile. Frequently the statutes that cover this sort of activity are broadly phrased and designed to be “catch-all” laws that protect minors of any age from a wide variety of abusive actions, although most states also have more specific Child Neglect or Child Endangerment laws at the felony level that specifically include leaving a child unattended in a car in their language.

In the U.S. State of Virginia, for example, a child left in a locked automobile for any length of time is considered Felony Child Neglect, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a fine up to $100,000  if the child suffers an injury as a result; if no injury is sustained the sentence can still be 5 years in jail. This felony-level charge is reserved for egregious cases lasting longer than a few minutes. For milder cases – a child left unattended for ten minutes or less – the charge falls into the misdemeanor category of  Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor, which carries a 1-year jail term. Of course, many other factors are involved in determining the level of neglect or abuse – the temperature at the time, the condition of the car, whether the engine is running or not, and the activity the parent is engaged in while the child is left alone.

You Don’t Define Neglect

The key takeaway for parents is that what may seem to them a mild form of neglect perfectly within their rights and authority as a parent – leaving their child unattended in a car for a short while – is not, in fact, within their rights. Children are not, after all, property and must be accorded basic human rights and consideration at all times. However it is easy to see how many parents would see dashing into the bank for five minutes while their child dozes peacefully in the back seat of the car as a minor offence – if they view it as an offence at all.

But an offence it is. Annually in the United States, 15-30 children die when left alone in vehicles during warm weather. Weather is frequently a governing factor in these cases, as many statutes are written with language requiring there to be “significant risk” to the child. Length of time left in the car, climate conditions inside and outside the car, and other factors all contribute to the determination of risk. This determination is often left to the arresting officers, who are frequently guided by the community elements that contact them in the first place – i.e., neighbours and other locals.

18 States in the U.S. currently have laws in the works that will specifically address leaving children unattended in cars – removing the offence from the catch-alls of child endangerment and delinquency. These laws are controversial as many people point out the majority of parents arrested for leaving their children in cars did so for short periods under pleasant climate conditions, and the children were not really in any danger at all. However, at least for the moment, if you’re a parent running errands in the United States – take your child with you.

About the author: Stephen Hart is a law and finance expert from the UK who has also spent much time in the US. He is the owner of comparison site cardswitcher.co.uk, a site built to allow SME’s to easily compare card processing fees in the UK and find the cheapest option for their payment processing.

About the author: Stephen Hart is an expert on law and finance and owner of comparison site cardswitcher.co.uk, a site built to allow SME's to easily compare card processing fees in the UK and find the cheapest option for their payment processing.

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