States Crack Down on Parents and Caregivers Who Leave Children Alone in Cars

A Florida mom who faces misdemeanor charges for leaving her 2-month-old son in an idling Pontiac is just the latest example of the nationwide crackdown on parents who leave their kids alone in cars and then face fines — or worse, jail time.

Twelve states have laws specifically prohibiting leaving young children alone in cars, some making it a traffic violation with a penalty of a ticket and a fine, and others — including Florida — making it a misdemeanor, with the possible punishment being a prison sentence as well as a hefty fine.

In the case of the Orlando mother, Whitlene Loussaint, police got involved because the car with the baby boy inside was stolen in the few minutes it took Loussaint to run back into her church to grab an umbrella. The car turned up blocks from the church parking lot where it was taken, with the doors wide open and the baby unhurt.

The Florida children-in-cars law has just been amended to make it a second-degree misdemeanor to leave a youngster under 6 alone in a car for more than 15 minutes or for any amount of time if the car is running. The new regulations went into effect July 1, and if Loussaint is prosecuted, she could face 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

An advocacy organization called Kids and Cars has been an influential lobbying group in the effort to toughen up legislation addressing the problem.

“We’re trying to get people to realize it is just as dangerous to leave a child alone in a vehicle as it is to leave him near a body of water,” said Kids and Cars founder and president Janette Fennell. “Just in seconds, something can happen.”

All states have laws that allow authorities to charge parents with child neglect and endangerment if a little one dies because he or she was left alone in a car.

In those cases, children most frequently perish because of hyperthermia, or death by extreme heat; strangulation by power windows they accidentally activate; and crashes caused by knocking the car into gear. Abduction is also a danger.

Fennell said there are roughly 30 to 40 hyperthermia deaths of children left in cars per year, and they’ve been on the rise since the early 1990s.

Ironically, many of the moms and dads who leave their young kids alone in cars aren’t neglectful or abusive parents, according to Fennell.

“In most cases, it’s very good parents,” she said. “It tends to be for that person’s convenience — they’re not thinking of the safety of the children. For some reason they think, I’ll just be a minute — and it’s never just a minute.”

In addition to Florida, the other states that have specific children-in-cars laws include Connecticut, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

Fennell said Kids and Cars is also working on getting a federal bill passed that regulates safety devices on automobiles. The law would mandate that all vehicles have the following three features:

• a standard and wide range of rearview vision when the car is in reverse to prevent children from being backed over;
• a feature on power windows that cause them to automatically reverse if they hit an obstruction, making strangulation of children peering out impossible;
• a brake shift interlock that stops a car from being thrown into “drive” unless someone has a foot on the brake.

Fennell said she thinks each case should be analyzed individually in terms of what sort of punishment is appropriate.

But taking a case-by-case approach can be a problem.

Currently, mothers who leave children alone in the car are treated much more harshly than fathers — with moms being 26 percent more likely to do time than dads and their average sentence being two years longer, according to a study done by The Associated Press.

Paid baby sitters and day-care workers are more likely to be charged and convicted than parents for leaving kids in cars but are imprisoned less frequently and for less than half the time that moms and dads are, the AP found.

Regardless, Fennell believes tougher legislation is key to preventing kids-in-cars tragedies from happening.

“There are more states that make it illegal to leave an animal alone in a car than a child,” Fennell said. “There has to be a specific law to make it illegal to leave a child alone. We want people to understand the dangers.”