OK, so I wrote a long email to RI State Senator Ruptakis regarding his proposed legislation. You can read it below. I don’t exactly know how the links work, so you’ll have to cut and paste until I figure it out. Let me know what you think.
Good day, Sir, I hope this note finds you well. My name is Brian Wetzler, a retired military officer, and a stay-at-home dad for a 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. You and I actually spoke at some length on the phone on Friday afternoon, Jan 8th, regarding legislation you are contemplating in the Rhode Island senate. I would like to thank you again for graciously sharing some of your busy time to speak to me about something we both clearly find quite important – legislation addressing parents leaving children in cars unattended. I understand that you intend to make it a punishable offense in RI for any parent, for any reason, to leave a child younger than seven-years-old in a car unattended. I am writing to express some personal and professional opinions in order to make my case for suspending this proposed bill.
Among other things, there are three critical weaknesses that I believe disqualify this bill as effective legislation. First, the apparent need for such a bill is heavily influenced by a growing cultural superstition that our children are in constant danger, even in parked cars, when it simply is not true. Second, the bill is blind with regards to parental intent, and will obliterate the rights of conscientious, capable parents, who make reasonable decisions based on the unique circumstances they encounter while caring for their children. Third, this bill, however well-meaning, will remain ripe for abuse, long after the ephemeral sensation of “feel good” legislation fades into history.
The timing of reintroducing this bill seems understandable, in light of the recent incident in MA, where a RI woman left her 8-month-old child in the car on a very cold day. I think we can all agree that an 8-month-old, unlike a five or six-year-old, is wholly dependent on external care for its welfare, and should probably not have been left alone in the manner that she was. In recognizing this particular distinction, however, we also must embrace the fact that no two children, or situations, are absolutely identical in the arena of parental decision-making. Also, despite what may have been an ill-advised decision, the facts of this case, and many similar cases, should not fall victim to distortion in the name of a pre-packaged narrative.
Luckily, the 10-minute episode in MA was far from being the near-tragedy that is being reported. It was, however, a perfect example of how, in cases like this, sensation trumps fact, outcomes are ignored, and judgment is swift and unflinching. In this particular case, the facts can be summed up this way: mom made a questionable decision, nothing happened, the child is fine. The headlines, however, focused exclusively on the fact that the temperature was freezing (outside, at least, but not in the car), implying that a baby was brazenly left in life-threatening cold due to wanton negligence, and would have met a tragic end, had someone not intervened to save this baby’s life. Not a single element of that media narrative is true. Not a single one. Rather, there were no negative outcomes; no harm was done; and, short of a complete aberration (e.g. Mom has a heart attack in the store), no harm was likely going to be done. The average viewer, however, could come away with only one conclusion: the mom was reckless, and a reasonable explanation for what she did could not possibly exist. Conversely, if a reasonable person were to examine the evident facts, the only conclusion possible is that the entire negative focus of the incident can survive only in the solitary and theoretical world of “something could have happened.” Was it an advisable decision, on the mom’s part, to leave her child in the car in this case? Probably not. However, the only answer any of us can confidently give with the information we have is, “We don’t know enough to say.” This is hardly a platform from which to launch an invasive new law.
This was not a death-defying spectacle, nor a miraculous rescue event. Rather, it was a false alarm. During my 24 years of commissioned military service, my primary duty was as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard where, one might say, I became an expert in managing fluid, dangerous, environments, where emotion was often at a life-and-death pitch. It was my job to look past the emotion, past the drama, and focus on the “real.” In my prior life, false alarms were a good thing: the “dead guy” in the boat was just sleeping; the rescue flare was just fireworks; the person drowning in the surf was an empty wet suit. We would ensure everything was OK, and fly home. We were happy nobody was in trouble. Not the case, it seems, with “kids in the car.” Even when a thinking, reasoning parent exercises prudent judgment in a given situation, he is often publicly excoriated in the wake of a completely false alarm. That is fertile ground for undue condemnation, and it invites bad law. False alarms stand in stark contrast to clear cases of negligence, in which a child is placed in predictable, demonstrable danger (heat stroke after hours in a hot car). There is a vital difference to be considered, and this proposed law would obliterate it. Our children simply are not in danger every single moment that we don’t have our eyes on them, even if they are sitting in a parked car unattended.
The MA story, and many like it, is about parental decision making. So, as one contemplates the passage of a bill that effectively usurps the most basic of parental rights – the power of parents to make informed decisions regarding the safety and welfare of their own children – it should not be in response to, or in consideration of, judgmental, inaccurate shock stories masquerading as news. If I were to propose a law that banned all harmful cleaning fluids from private homes, would that be an appropriate “what if” law? Could we ban plastic shopping bags and plastic wrap? Outlaw pools? Ban children from playing outside in their own yards without a parent? As we can see, the world of “what if” has no end. In fact, if we were serious about making an immediate impact on child safety, and saving thousands of lives, we would look directly at the single most dangerous place for children to be in the United States – in a moving car. Without fanfare or exaggeration, we can say with high confidence that the most dangerous thing that the RI mom did that day was to drive her daughter to that parking lot. So, how do we reconcile that? Ban kids from cars? Seems like the right thing to do. Arguments against?
At least one significant court of law has, finally, recognized the absurdity of “what if” law- enforcement. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently heard a case that involved a mom being prosecuted for leaving her child in a car unattended. Like the above case, the parent was competent, no harm was done, and no harm was likely. The court, in a 7-0 decision, reversed a lower court that had denied the mom a hearing to defend herself against charges of abuse. In its opinion, the Supreme Court clearly recognized that every case is unique, and that no blanket judgments can be applied to a decision-making process that, by its very nature, is fact-driven, and far more complex than simply “she left her kids in the car, she is guilty.” Your proposed bill would not survive a judicial review in New Jersey, but I can’t yet speak for RI. You can find some reporting on the NJ case at the below link.
Unfortunately, the phenomenon of “kids left in the car”, is just a singular element of a wider culture that seems to be wallowing in child-safety superstition and hysteria. Moms have actually been arrested for oversleeping, and allowing their children walk to school.
Mom Handcuffed and Arrested for Oversleeping While Son, 8, Walked Self to School
In another well-publicized case, a Maryland couple was charged for allowing their 10 and six-year-olds to walk home from the park.
In that case, the Meitivs may very well have been condemned by law enforcement, and child services, had the case not been championed on the international stage by outraged parents from around the world. The case also triggered a change to Maryland state law, and, for my part, opened my eyes to the ongoing erosion of parental rights in the United States. At this point, I do not fear for the welfare of my children in the traditional sense. I am, like many parents, more afraid of being targeted by agents of a culture that has seemingly lost its common sense. I leave you to contemplate whether your proposed law would add to, or assuage that fear.
We all must be extra careful when we write with archival ink. This law, if passed, will likely outlive my grandchildren. It took an international incident for Maryland law makers to come to their senses, and a Supreme Court ruling in New Jersey. During a recent interview, you said that this law will “send a message.” To whom, and what would it say? Perhaps it would be better to use a “message” instead, rather than create a law that will outlast the faintest echoes of any intended message, crafted for the moment. During our conversation, you said that “we’re not looking to go after the mom who leaves her kids in the car for three minutes to run into Cumberland Farms.” Granted, that may be your intention, and that is admirable. However, if we were to truly believe that the nuances of intention will actually translate to a fair, equitable, and reasonable application of this law, by those who apply it, we are not only sorely mistaken, we are foolhardy. In essence, this law will deputize citizen by-standers to harass and intimidate parents in situations that merit no policing, and where no emergency actually exists. However, that will matter very little once the 911 call is made. As we saw in MA.
The local police, in addition to opportunistic prosecutors, will inevitably see easy, publicity-worthy prosecutions in the offing. When one simply looks at what is happening in your very own chamber, we see political reality in action. Let us consider the “opportunity” to re-energize this bill. This opportunity is fueled by pure emotional appeal, using a case that has been misrepresented by the media, further skewed by other misinformation, and, after all, saw no harm done, and no legitimate threat to the well-being of the child. Basically, nothing happened. Yet, it is helping push this agenda forward. How is that? Do you, or anyone in the chamber (or any living politician anywhere), actually think that other law enforcement officials and bureaucrats, in other places, at other times, will not use this law to advance an agenda or prosecution that conveniently benefits a political or professional ambition, even though “nothing happened”? To believe otherwise is, at best, naive, at worst, it approaches legislative malpractice.
Will prosecutions always happen that way? Of course not. But, as I am sure you have witnessed, bureaucrats reach for the most effective weapon in their arsenal, and this law would be a very convenient and effective one in the wrong hands. Perhaps emotion-fueled, judgmental, angry hands. After all, the “lives of children” are at stake (or are they?). Unfortunately, the person wielding that weapon may not quite agree with your Cumberland Farms exception. And, ultimately, he won’t have to.
In a recent interview you mentioned that RI can fine and imprison someone for leaving a pet in the car, but “kids in the car” gets a verbal warning. You thought that was “crazy”, if I recall. Do you intend to use that fact as supporting evidence for why this newly proposed bill is good law? At the very least, the comment seems to imply that the two laws are somehow related or, perhaps, should be equitable in some way. The comparison is excellent as an attention getter, but that is all. Logic professionals would call it a “false comparison.” A pet law, and all its unique political dynamics, cannot educate a sensible consideration of a separate, stand-alone law that digs deeply into the covenant of parental rights in raising and caring for their own human children. The pet law has nothing to do, and should have nothing to do, with this process.
Genuine tragedies that result in harm to children move us all. As a professional rescuer, I witnessed too many of them. So, as a parent, I understand the intent of this proposed bill, and applaud you for trying to protect the most vulnerable among us. However, the law proposes a “fix” where no fix is necessary. It will not prevent, or even mitigate the damage done when a truly negligent parent makes a horrible decision regarding his children. Unfortunately, parents will make those decisions, and no legislation in the world can prevent it. Instead, this law will effectively raise every conscientious parent to the level of negligent, and leave him exposed to untold legal, familial, and financial chaos, at the hands of deputized citizens who dial first, and ask questions later. I believe it was General Colin Powell who said, “one of the most difficult things about being a leader is knowing exactly when to do nothing, and then doing it.” I sincerely hope that this bill is quietly put to rest, and replaced with common sense. Thank you very much for your time.
CDR Brian Wetzler, USCG (Ret.)