A child being left in the car is usually front-page news in Phoenix. It is a tragic death, as the inside of a car in the summer can reach 200 degrees. In Maricopa County, parents who leave children in the car, even when there is no real injury, are often charged with child abuse/neglect. Child Protective Services (CPS) will be contacted and children can be placed in foster homes. Depending on the injury to the child, temperature and policies set by prosecutors of these cases, the charges can run the gambit from misdemeanors to negligent homicide.
Everyone has heard stories about men intentionally leaving their kids in the car while going into a bar or strip-club. Remember the lady in Scottsdale who left her kid in the car but took her dog into Nordstroms?
A few years ago I represented a mother, who despite what she thought were good intentions, left her son in the car while she went into a bookstore. The events occurred at the Target Shopping Center adjacent to Paradise Valley Mall. My client and her two (2) kids were heading to the “1/2 Priced Books” in the strip mall. The children, ages 3 and 7, were in the back seat of a Honda Oddessy minivan. The 3-year-old boy had fallen asleep in the car on the short drive from their home in Paradise Valley. Mom decided she did not want to wake the child, and found the closest parking spot to the “1/2 Priced Books”. She opened the sliding door so that she (and anyone nearby) could see into the van and where the boy sleeping and still strapped into his car seat.
Fortunately, the weather was pleasant (70 degrees) and was not an issue when she left the car and walked about 150 feet (as measured by the Phoenix Police Department) into the “1/2 Priced Books”. As the minutes ticked on, pedestrians in the parking lot took notice of the little boy sleeping unattended in the vehicle. They gathered near the car wondering the whereabouts of the child’s parent. Someone called the Phoenix Police, who arrived a few minutes later and confirmed that the child was in good health and just sleeping. Ultimately, the roof-lights of the squad car caught the attention of my client who frantically came running out of the bookstore.
The Mother approached the Phoenix police officer and tried to explain that she was watching the child from inside the bookstore. She indicated that she could see her son the entire time through the open car door and that he was okay. While the police were deciding what action to take, Mother called her husband, who was a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. He quickly arrived at the shopping center and attempted to deescalate the situation. Notwithstanding his efforts, the Mother was arrested.
Defending a parent accused of intentionally harming a child is always challenging…but defending a parent who unintentionally (certainly not maliciously) exposed a child to harm is often more difficult. My client was a PhD candidate and extremely intelligent (at least with book smarts). Yet, despite her formal education, she clearly exercised poor judgment by leaving her son in the car. In defending the case, we obtained video surveillance from the parking lot and were able to asses how long the Mother had left the child unattended…a total of 14 minutes. The State argued that the Mother must not have been watching from the store, as she did not see the small mob of onlookers until the police arrived with lights and sirens.
In addition to criminal charges, Child Protective Services (CPS) was called. Our job was to assure that the CPS ‘unsubstantiated’ the child neglect allegation and that the criminal matter was successfully resolved by trial or reasonable compromise. Ultimately, we convinced CPS to ‘unsubstantiate’ the allegation, as the child was not harmed, and State of Arizona agreed to drop the felony charges.
While we all think we would not make a mistake as serious as this, the reality is that it could happen to anyone. Unfortunately poor parenting decisions do not discriminate based wealth or education. My client made a bad decision, and fortunately, with our assistance, was able to avoid CPS taking her children or being convicted of a serious crime.