‘Briefly’ leaving a child in the car? A lot can happen

Those with kids have all faced the temptation of leaving a child in the car for only a "few minutes." Here's why you should just take them with you

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It’s when temperatures hit sweltering heights that we usually start reading horrific stories about children left in cars all day. Those stories are difficult to read and important to know, but the plummeting of the mercury doesn’t change the facts: don’t leave your kids in the car.

Generally, we’re talking about two different mindsets here. A child forgotten in a car, usually when a parent has deviated from a standard daily pattern, leads to those awful headlines we see every summer. Everyone believes it could never happen to them and I hope they’re right; but should be required reading for everyone.

Come winter, a different kind of pattern emerges. If you have children, you’ve done it, or almost certainly thought about it. Everyone says they could never forget their child in a car for eight hours; but what about knowingly leaving them for 10 minutes? 15? What if it’s about convenience, rather than neglect?

Read more: Why there’s no such thing as a car ‘accident’

You just have to run in somewhere for a moment, maybe to grab milk or pick up another kid from school. Maybe you’re getting a coffee, or hitting the bank machine. Kiddo is snuggled in his car seat, snoozing happily. Or maybe it’s your two-year-old, who will insist on walking no matter the weather because she can do it herself.

Please don’t leave them in the car.

The heartbreaking headlines have led to what some consider vigilante action, bystanders noting a child left unattended in the car and assuming the worst and calling police or even breaking windows. The Internet predictably lights up on both sides, accusing people of overreacting. But how do I know how long your kid has been left alone? How do I know you haven’t slipped and fallen or been held up in a longer-than-expected lineup? Who wants to risk ignoring a child?

In this Wednesday, June 18, 2014, file photo, Cobb County police investigate an SUV where a toddler died near Marietta, Ga., when the father forgot to drop his child off at day care and went to work.

Canada’s Criminal Code is clear and police officers will follow it. Section 218 states: “Every one who unlawfully abandons or exposes a child who is under the age of ten years so that its life is or is likely to be endangered or its health is or is likely to be permanently injured, (a) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years; or (b) is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding eighteen months.”

I asked Constable Clinton Stibbe of Toronto Police Service what someone should do if they see a child left in a car. “An individual can’t go wrong calling 911 if they see a child unattended in a vehicle. When looking at a case where the child has been left alone, the risks to the child from glass being broken to gain entry to a vehicle could also severely injure the child.”

While police will judge each situation individually, the Child and Family Services Act “does not specifically state an age when a youngster can be left alone. It does say that if a child younger than 10 years old is left unsupervised, the onus of establishing that reasonable provisions for supervision and care were made rests with the parent or guardian.” You’ll have to prove what was more important than your kid.

I know you didn’t “abandon” your child when you ran into the store, but if another car hits yours in the parking lot it’s going to be hard to explain otherwise. Little ones learn in no time how to undo a seat belt, and in the few minutes it might take you to get that coffee, they could be anywhere in the car, even if they were asleep when you slipped out. If you’ve left it running, it’s even more dangerous. When I had a newborn in one of those baby bucket seats, I wiped out on some ice. I got banged up, though the kid was fine, and you could argue, I suppose, that he’d have been safer in the car. But if I’d smacked my head, who would have known he was even in the car?

In most child-rearing conversations I’m pretty old school. Everybody has to eat a bucket of dirt before they die, I’ve never put my kids in bubble wrap, and falling out of trees is part of growing up.

Taking a long look in the rearview mirror of my sons’ early years, though, I’ve come to realize a few other things. I never underestimate the mindset and dexterity of a toddler, and I never overestimate an adult’s ability to keep track of time. Raising children is hard and exhausting and, often, inconvenient.

Ultimately, you don’t need a cop or a nosy neighbour to tell you; if anything – anything – happened, you’d never forgive yourself. As Stibbe says, “Without a doubt take them out.”

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