Daniel J. Mitchell

What’s the worst example of bureaucrats harassing and persecuting parents?

Was it the Texas woman who was arrested because her children were playing outside?

Or how about the Michigan woman who wasthreatened for looking after her neighbor’s kids?

Those are egregious examples, but here’s another example of government run amok.

Lenore Skenazy has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal on the topic of whether it should be a criminal offense to leave your kids in a car, even if just for a few minutes.

Here’s how she describes the issue.

One mother is hauled off to the police station. Another is clapped in handcuffs. The mothers’ offenses? They let their kids wait in the car while they ran a quick errand. Yes, these moms did just what yours probably did back when you were a kid. That age-old practice has been criminalized in 19 states in recent years, thanks to a world that seems increasingly unable to distinguish between negligence and normal parenting. …The impulse behind these laws is not evil, just excessive. Many people and politicians—I suppose the categories overlap—believe that whenever children are left alone in a car they could easily die of heat exhaustion or be kidnapped.

She then looks at the data. Kidnapping doesn’t even merit an asterisk, while death from heat is very rare and overwhelmingly caused by factors other than a quick stop to get a gallon of milk.

While the kidnapping fear is beyond absurd (doubters, please look up the stats), the heatstroke fear is based on the fact that cars do get hot. Just not in the time it takes to buy a gallon of milk. …each year about 40 children die of hyperthermia in automobiles. …But according a group that tracks these statistics, kidsandcars.org (“Love Them, Protect Them”), the overwhelming majority were either forgotten in the car for hours (54%) or climbed into an empty vehicle without anyone’s knowledge and got stuck (31%). This, in a country with 32 million children under age 8 taking billions of car trips annually. Any child’s death is a terrible tragedy. But the reflexive call to 911 the minute a child is spied alone in a car is lunacy. Why not wait a minute to see if the parent comes back?

I don’t necessarily blame strangers for calling 911. After all, maybe the time you see kids alone in a car is one of those one-in-a-million instances of tragic forgetfulness by a parent.

But I do blame cops for overreacting. Ms. Skenazy has a couple of examples in her column. Here’s the one that I found most outrageous.

A typical story is the one I heard about from a mother of two who lives in a small town near Utica, N.Y. Last summer, on a 69-degree night, she ran into a grocery store to get some chicken breasts at 6:54 (she had just spoken to her husband on her cellphone). In the car she left her 5-year-old girl and 6-month old boy, who was asleep. At 7:03 (it’s on record) a passerby called 911. Then he pulled a truck behind her car so she couldn’t drive away—which she dearly wanted to do when she emerged from the store moments later. Instead, she had to wait for the police. The officer, rather than informing the busybody stranger that he shouldn’t prevent the free movement of citizens, told the mother that she was in big trouble. He searched her purse for dangerous objects. Then she had to call her parents to come get the kids, because the cop was taking her to the police station. Her daughter cried as she left. After that? Three visits from child-protective services to her home. The workers found nothing amiss, but “they have told me if it ever happens again, they will move the courts to have my children placed in foster care,” she said.

First, what sort of jerk blocks the women from leaving? Since this happened in New York, I wonder if it was Michael Wolfensohn, who has a track record of being a certain unmentionable orifice.

More important, why didn’t the cop simply ask the women what happened, take a minute to ascertain that certain common-sense precautions were taken (such as the car doors being locked while she was in the store), and then let her go home after some friendly advice about being careful?!?

At least we should be relieved that the poor woman wasn’t arrested, though I can only imagine how galling it would be to have some bureaucrats come to your house over and over again with immense powers to disrupt your family if you don’t kowtow to them.

Whatever happened to common sense? Oh, wait, never mind. We’re talking about government, that delightful entity that arrests kids for throwing snowballsarrests a heroic young man for rescuing a child, and treats failure to file a form as a more serious crime than child pornography.


Daniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell is a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy at the Cato Institute.
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