Daddy's in the Strip Club, Baby's in the Car and Someone's on the Telephone Calling the Police
A 42-year-old father in New Zealand is facing criminal charges he left his one-year-old baby alone in a car while he visited a strip club. The incident was reported to the authorities by a passer-by, who noticed the baby in the vehicle around 3 a.m. in the parking lot of the club. Authorities arrived within seven minutes, removed the child from the car and brought the baby to a hospital for observation. The child appears to be physically unharmed and is now being taken care of at another hospital while family members make arrangements for his care. The predictable route would be to rehash that a dad left his baby in a car while he went into a strip club, call out his lousy parenting, and then write it up with the requisite smug remark dooming the child's future.
I'm not going to go that route. I think we're all tired of it, and frankly, it offers nothing new to the conversation -- nor is it really news. We hear stories about kids in cars all summer long. And they are tragic stories. And they hurt our hearts -- so much so that I'm not going to link to any of them. We all know summer is heading our way, and kids dying in cars is bound to be in the news yet again. But instead of focusing on admonishing anyone, let's focus on what it takes to be a good Samaritan -- the person who makes the decision to get involved, to pick up the phone, to say a few words. In some situations, it's black and white: Witness a baby alone in a car, it's 3 a.m. and the vehicle is in the parking lot of a strip joint. But ...
What if I told you that in some states it is legal to leave a baby alone in a vehicle for up to 10 minutes? It's true. When I lived in Illinois, I watched on a lovely day in mid-May as a woman left her toddler in the back seat of her car and walked into a store. I was about to say something to her, but I noticed a police officer stood by his own car in the parking lot, not even 10 feet away. He witnessed the entire thing, and yet he didn't utter a peep. Not even a "Ma'am, your baby is in that car." Nada. Zippo. Silent. As a social worker, I am a mandated reporter, as are officers of the law. I was admittedly dumbfounded when the police officer just stood there, doing nothing and yet witnessing a potentially dangerous situation for a baby. It was a WTF moment.
I approached the officer and introduced myself, explained I had recently moved to Illinois and maybe the laws are different here. I shared with the officer that where I come from you can't legally leave your baby alone in a car. He told me, "In the state of Ilinois, you can. For up to 10 minutes. I've got my watch going on her." I believe, and you can quote me on this, I responded, "Are you shitting me?" I just could not fathom the state of Illinois could be so stupid. In 10 minutes, a child under six years old left alone in a car in the summer heat could be dead! The officer shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "I only enforce the law, I don't make the law." Holy wake-up call, Batman!
But even if the law is on your side, people are often afraid to get involved and offer assistance. Here are a few misconceptions folks have shared with me that make it difficult for them to pick up the phone when they observe a child in danger.*
"If I call the police or child protective services, that parent is going to have his or her child taken away." Well, to this I say "Thank you LifeTime Movie Network for depicting social workers as baby snatchers." The more serious answer is that typically it takes far more than one phone call to remove a child from a parent -- and even if a child is taken into custody, other family members are the first ones considered to provide temporary shelter and care. One phone call to child protective services will not sever anyone's parental rights. Only a court hearing can do so. However, one phone call may make a difference in how seriously the complaint is taken if there are previous reports in a file. Your call might be the one that tips the scale and qualifies a family to receive in-home parenting classes or other support services.
"I don't want anyone to know I reported the problem." You have the ability to place an anonymous call in most states. Check with yours. While the child protection worker on the phone will ask for your contact information, you may say, "I wish to remain anonymous. I am making an anonymous report." The worker is legally bound to take your report, submit it and follow the appropriate procedures for investigation. In states where it is required that you disclose your identity, protective workers are required by law to keep your identity confidential. They are prohibited from releasing your information to anyone, unless under court order to do so. Even if you wind up having to testify, you can request that the judge protect your identity.
"The perpetrator might sue me for defamation or slander." The only way a lawsuit moves forward is if what you said was untrue or done with malicious intent. And the burden of proof is on the accuser. If you reported truthfully and with honorable intent, there is no basis for a lawsuit.
"What if I'm wrong and make a mistake?" What if you're right and save a child? It's worth the possibility of embarrassment, and your intentions were honorable -- in the protections biz, it's called "an act of good faith." The authorities are trained to investigate; they are also trained to help families cope when a mistake has been made. Yes it can be devastating to a family to be accused of something they didn't do, but most realize, with the help of trained professionals, no malice was intended and the safety of their child was on the mind of the person who made the report. Furthermore, states have laws protecting those who make mistakes in good faith and will protect you from being sued.
We've all heard horror stories of authorities blowing it when it comes to protecting kids; no system is perfect, and I'm not going to pretend it is. Until major overhauls -- which I believe are on the horizon -- get made, let's just try to do what we can as individuals to help one another. Especially when the situation may not be as obvious as a baby in a car, alone in the parking lot of a strip club, at 3 a.m.
I'm fairly confident you all have your own opinions on this topic. Let's hear em!
*I am not an attorney, I do not play one on the Internet. The advice I am giving is based on my 15 years of being a social worker and what I generally understand of laws and guidelines based upon my anecdotal experience. Check with your own municipality regarding the specific laws and guidelines where you live.
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