Free-Range Kids

Napping Child Left in Car While Parents Run Quick Errand, Everyone Loses Their Minds

Child services is still hounding this family.


Constantin Opris / Dreamstime

A mom, dad, and their preschooler went to Home Depot in Valley Stream, Long Island, last Saturday to get some Christmas lights. The boy fell asleep in the car, so the parents cracked open the sun roof and let him snooze while they ran their errand. A passerby saw the boy and called 911 to report a child in a car, "unconscious."

When the parents came out about 20 minutes later (the lights had been hard to find), they found a huge commotion at their car. Cops! Firemen! An ambulance! A fireman had smashed open their rear passenger window and was extricating their son as if the car was on fire.

Then, rather than seeing that the boy was startled but fine, the safety kabuki began.

That's according to the dad, W. Cheung. Cheung tried to take control of the situation and reached for his son, but a cop screamed at him not to touch the child. The mom was allowed into the ambulance to accompany her child to the emergency room, because the authorities decided the now fully awake, totally fine child must nonetheless be medically examined.

Then, as Cheung wrote me in an email:

I was searched handcuffed and placed In a patrol car. Then taken to the fifth precinct of Nassau police department. Fingerprinted and photos taken and in a cell for over 5 hours.

He emailed me his summons for "child endangerment."

Released at 10:30 p.m., Cheung rushed over to the hospital where his wife and son were still waiting, since they didn't have the car. Cheung learned that even though this was billed as a dire "emergency," they'd had to wait two hours for a doctor to see the boy.

After another three hour wait, the boy was also checked out by a social worker in the trauma unit, according to Cheung. The social worker could see the boy was fine, but the family's information was recorded, and a Child Protective Services worker was assigned to follow up. When the family finally got home late that night, their phone rang: It was a social worker from family services. She was standing outside their house.

This social worker examined the boy as well, and the family's home, opening up the fridge to make sure there was food. She made the boy and his sibling lift up their shirts so she could look for bruises. And after asking some more questions, she left, according to Cheung.

Now, maybe you wouldn't let your child wait in the car for 20 minutes. But chances are that your parents did that with you, because this was once universally acceptable. Only very recently have we become convinced that a child in a parked car is automatically in terrible danger, despite the fact that more kids die crossing parking lots than waiting in cars.

As Cheung writes:

The officer told my wife that if your our child is out of sight for more than "10 seconds"! We are endangering our child. 10 seconds! What if I have to get gas and pay the cashier in the store? God forbid I bought a bottle of water while in there.

This is simply hysteria. If the officer truly believes a child is in danger if "left alone" for 10 seconds, there is something wrong with the officer, not the parents. And yet the officer has all the power, as do the laws in 19 states that have criminalized parents who decide their kid can wait out an errand in the car.

Cheung wrote that this incident made him feel like a "horrible father, a criminal, and a worthless person."

And it wasn't over yet. On Wednesday I got a new email from him: Another social worker had come to his home and stripped both of his kids naked to look for signs of abuse. Seeing a "Mongolian spot" on the 4-year-old—a common type of birthmark on the lower back (I was born with one, too)—the social worker took photos of the boy's behind. Next, the social worker will visit the boy's pre-school to observe how he plays.

Let's hope the kid does not hit his stuffed animal, or this could spell doom for the family.

As for the dad, he has to hire a lawyer. He replaced his window for $350. And he has a court date in two weeks.

Could the authorities possibly waste any more time and money on this case? A case where no child is, or ever was, in real danger. Based on what we've seen so far, my guess is yes.

As for what to do if you do see a child in a car and you're worried, I'd recommend waiting a few minutes for the parents to come out, going inside the store and asking around if absolutely necessary, and calling 911 only as a last resort.