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Have children, will travel

Parent weigh the risks of leaving kids alone in vehicle
By: Lisa A. Flam, Associated Press Writer
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From the driver’s seat, the coffee shop catches your eye, giving you hope that a steaming midday cup could help you survive after a sleepless night with a teething toddler. The only thing in your way is the sleeping lump strapped into his car seat. Any parent who drives knows the calculation: You could lock the doors, run in and grab your coffee while keeping an eye on things out the window. Or you could wake the child, undo the car-seat straps, scoop him up and carry the crying kid through the store and then have to do it all again in reverse. In other words, a quick errand or a potential ordeal? While parents may be reluctant to admit it, many say they’ve taken the easier route, or at least considered it, despite experts’ warnings that things can and do go terribly wrong when children are left alone in cars. The issue became an online flashpoint after an Illinois mother was arrested in December on a child endangerment charge for leaving her 2-year-old daughter sleeping in her locked, alarmed car while she and her two older daughters put change in a Salvation Army kettle. She said she was 30 feet away and gone for only minutes. The charges were recently dropped. But the case sent parents to their keyboards, with many blasting the police for going too far and saying there were more dangerous things parents do with children, like smoking in a car. Others applauded the arrest, saying the woman had put the girl in danger. Laws on kids and cars vary by state. Twelve states make it illegal to leave a child, with some specifying the age and time alone, according to two advocacy groups. In all states, child neglect laws, which can involve a child being taken away from the parent, could be applied. Parents who leave their children briefly say they feel safe because their child is buckled into a locked car, windows cracked. The say they live in safe communities or have tinted windows. They point to saving time, or sparing a child a trip into bad weather. But they also acknowledge the risks. As a child psychologist, Amy Summers is a mandated reporter of child abuse who says she would not hesitate to report a child alone in a car who appeared to be in danger. With her own 4-year-old son, she says she always considers risks like heat or predators when deciding to leave him as she has done to use an outdoor ATM, go inside to pay for gas or pick up dry cleaning. She keeps her locked car mostly in view (her back may be turned while she’s getting cash), she’s gone a few minutes, about 20 feet away. “I only do it if I feel those risks are very, very low or nonexistent,” said Summers, 42, of Seattle. Every parent has her or his own comfort level. For Miryam Roddy, that means only leaving her 5-year-old daughter in her locked car on their suburban Philadelphia street to go back inside for something. “I would never do it at a store, but in front of my house, I say, ‘Count to 30 and mommy will be back before then,’“ said Roddy, who’s been doing it for about a year and a half. “You can’t say you should never leave your child alone in a car. There’s a gray area when it’s OK.” Others stick to the arm’s length philosophy. With boys ages 6, 4, and 3 months and a teenage daughter, Cristina Amesbury knows what it’s like to get four kids into the car. She does it several times a day. Afraid of kidnapping, she doesn’t leave them alone. “I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” said Amesbury, 42, of Shrub Oak, N.Y. “People should adjust their lives around having kids, not leave them in the car.” Anita Lavine of Seattle says she generally does not leave her children, about to turn 2 and 3, alone but has done it once or twice outside a dry cleaner with the car in sight. While she’d like to go briefly farther afield sometimes, she worries about being reported to child welfare officials or her children being harmed. “Realistically, do I think something is going to happen? No,” said Lavine, 36. “But those things run through your mind, what if something happened?” Janette Fennell, founder and president of the group Kids and Cars, said parents who leave their children even briefly are tempting fate. “It’s not what could happen, it’s what does happen,” she said. She recommends that children never be left alone — that is when a parent is beyond arm’s reach of the car. The dangers of a short absence include a child escaping a car seat and putting the car into gear or getting out of the car, being strangled by power windows or seat belts, fire, choking, abduction or theft of a running car with a child inside. “What people don’t understand is all these things can happen within seconds,” Fennell says. “Everyone says it’s OK for a minute.” The majority of injuries and deaths involving unattended children in and around cars happen in just a few minutes, with the exception of heat-related cases, said Fennell, whose group tracks cases around the nation. Last year, 232 children died in non-traffic cases in and near vehicles, a figure that includes children getting into a car on their own, rather than being left there by an adult. The number so far for 2008 is at least 36, she said. With summer coming, advocates and doctors remind parents that cars can heat up quickly once the engine is off. In the first 10 minutes, the temperature can rise an average of 19 degrees, Fennell said. While most heat-related deaths in cars don’t occur after just a few minutes, she said young infants have died in less than 15 minutes. The best way not to worry is to avoid the practice, says Diane Van Leuven, a spokeswoman for another advocacy group, Harrison’s Hope. The group is named for a toddler killed when two other children, left alone in a running van while their parents stood nearby talking, set the vehicle in motion and ran over the child. “‘‘Parents almost need a wake-up call, a jolt for them to realize that one second is all it takes,” Van Leuven said. The age when a child could be left alone depends on his maturity level, possibly around 9 or 10, says Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas. Fennell went further, saying kids should be watched until driving age. If you do decide to go in for that coffee, you never know who you might meet. Fennell recalled a woman who rushed into a Starbucks and asked to skip ahead in line because she had left her child in the car. “I said ‘No, go get your child,’“ she said.