Carla Neems, a month shy of turning seven, was scootering home from school when she was hit by a garbage truck and killed.
A two-year inquest was held. Last week, the coroner, Tim Scott, finally issued his report. He blamed the parents, saying it was "unacceptable" that the girl was allowed to get home without them—because every heart-wrenching child tragedy, no matter how unpredictable or rare, must be deemed the fault of a bad mom or dad.
So here's the story. It took place in New Zealand. Carla was coming home from school, which is about half a mile from her home. She had done this daily with her sisters, who are eight and ten, for a year. On May 2, 2017, she was with an older friend until the very last bit of the trip, which she made by herself. When she scootered in front of the truck, less than a block from her home, the driver didn't see her. He has been acquitted of reckless driving.
The parents are not getting off that easy.
Coroner Scott declared, "I do not accept that it was acceptable for Carla to go to and from school in the care of her older siblings—and part of the way home alone. The siblings were too young to be vested with that responsibility. Sadly the confidence that Mr. and Mrs. Neems had about Carla's road safety was misplaced and flies in the face of what happened."
The problem is this: In the wake of any tragedy, it's easy to say, "If only X hadn't happened, we wouldn't be mourning today." That can make it feel as if "X" is so inherently and (in retrospect) inevitably dangerous that it should never be allowed. When the coroner says the parents' trust in Carla "flies in the face of what happened," he is saying they should have known this was going to happen.
This is a cruel twist of the knife. It is also wrong. If a child falls down the stairs and dies, does that "fly in the face" of parents who thought it was okay to raise kids in two-story houses? Would the coroner call them reckless? If a child slips in the tub, does that "fly in the face" of parents stupid enough to believe it was okay for their child to take a bath?
There is no such thing as a completely risk-free life. It is unfair and cruel to blame parents for trusting the odds—for not living every second as if an anvil was about to fall on their heads.
And yet the news site Stuff has praised the coroner's declaration, saying it will save lives:
Maybe Scott could have found more compassionate words to comfort a grieving family; maybe he felt a need to draw a line in so much unnecessary death and shock people out of their complacency.
Who is complacent when it comes to the death of a child? In fact, we are so completely shaken by this development that we have to immediately turn it into a lesson so that we don't have to stare into the abyss that is cruel fate. And that is exactly how the Stuff editorial proceeds: "Carla's death is not meaningless; it has inspired an honest assessment of risk that will hopefully save many lives."
In one sense—the design of garbage trucks—that may be true. Assessors came to realize the trucks have a blind spot and have since worked to eradicate it. They've also made the trucks even more visible. This is great news. But a coroner stating that children should not be allowed to venture outside on their own until age eight or nine, even when parents believe they should be allowed to do so, is alarming. It's a hallmark of paranoia, not prudence.
At Let Grow, we believe in teaching kids to take care on the streets, to stop, look, and listen, and to check both ways. We also love reflectors, and lights and bells on bikes. But when it comes to blame, we believe in mourning with the Neems, rather than cruelly pretending this was their fault.