Recent tragedies in which young children have died after adults have left them in parked vehicles raise the question: What’s reasonable for parents and guardians when it comes to leaving kids unattended?
Although some states have laws that specify ages at which children can be lawfully left alone in cars, Minnesota does not. Instead, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) has guidelines for what constitutes child neglect and endangerment. Because child maturity and responsibility levels vary greatly — some kids are ready to spend time alone at earlier ages than others — setting statewide age limits with criminal penalties for violations seems ill-considered.
Officials in many metro-area counties, including Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Anoka, rightly consider the DHS guidelines when making childprotection decisions because they’re based on research. DHS says that children younger than 8 shouldn’t be left alone and that those younger than 11 shouldn’t be left in charge of others.
In May, 4-year-old Riley Taylor died in St. Paul after he was left alone for hours in a hot SUV with the window cracked while his father, Kristopher A. Taylor of Apple Valley, worked at an event. Taylor was charged with second-degree manslaughter.
Last week, 6-year-old Ty’rah White died from smoke inhalation and burns after a vehicle caught fire and spread to the van in which she and her 9-year-old sister, Taraji White, were sleeping. Their mother, Essie McKenzie, had left them in the vehicle while she shopped at a Walmart in Fridley. Taraji was also treated for smoke inhalation and burns.
Anoka County authorities, while citing the DHS guidelines on supervision of young children, referred the case to child protective services. McKenzie said she left the girls in the van because they were tired and asleep, and she shopped for less than an hour.
Although the circumstances varied, both are heartbreaking cases with lives lost and others forever altered. They also provoke lingering questions about parental supervision and the law.
In Hennepin County, “Our charge, of course, is the safety of children: Do parents take reasonable efforts to protect that child?” said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator. “But my concern about a statutory approach is that it would create a rule in black and white for situations that aren’t black and white.”
Still, some favor hard and fast rules. KidsAndCars.org, an advocacy group that tracks incidents nationwide and lobbies on behalf of children, reports that 19 states have laws against leaving children in vehicles.
The organization also offers worthwhile information on technology that can help keep children safe in and around vehicles, including systems that alert drivers if children are left in a car by mistake, heat sensors with alerts, and enhanced camera systems that can help detect small children near vehicles.
Ultimately, responsible parents need to decide what’s best for their children. And they should heed the advice of Essie McKenzie, who asked for prayers for her family during a news conference last week. “Give your babies kisses. Hold them tight for me. You never know the last time you get the chance to hear their voice and talk to them. That’s all I ask. Tell them you love them.”