Erika and Elaina Doring (Used with Permission)

Erika and Elaina Doring (Used with Permission)

Erika Doring has devoted her life and career to children. She was a counselor with child protective services for 10 years and now owns Cutie Pie Consignment, a consignment store in Hood River, Oregon, that sells children’s goods. She has a daughter of her own named Elaina, whom she dotes upon. Had she been less devoted to children, she might not have ended up in cuffs and charged with—of all things—child neglect.

How could such a thing happen? One hot day in the summer of 2010, Erika and Elaina got into the family car and prepared to head to the lake. In her haste, Erika initially forgot to bring Elaina’s life vest. After turning the air conditioning up for Elaina and parking the vehicle, she went to retrieve the vest. While she did so, a parking meter attendant spotted Elaina and notified the police, who came, saw, and issued a citation.

She was told to report to the police station, where she was handcuffed, searched, photographed, and booked. After enduring intrusive monitoring by child protective services, Erika eventually went to trial, where she was found not guilty of child neglect. The ordeal left her shaken, however, and her mug shot, being a matter of “public record,” remains on the Internet.

Erika’s painful experience is not unique. Increasingly, parents who leave their children alone for mere minutes risk being immediately cuffed and charged with crimes. Several states have statutes that prohibit parents from leaving children alone in a car for more than five or 10 minutes.

I spoke with a mother of two living in New York who ran afoul of such a law. While she was driving both kids to the supermarket to pick up food, her baby fell asleep for the first time during a very busy day. Rather than wake him, she locked the car with both children inside. When she came back after 10 minutes, a truck belonging to a stranger was parked behind her car, blocking her vehicle, and two large men were standing close by. She confronted the men, who refused to leave. Finally, a police officer arrived, searched the mother for dangerous objects, and took her away from her weeping daughter in handcuffs.

The thought of a child alone in a car understandably stirs fear in every parent. We are all familiar with tragic stories involving kids left alone in hot cars. But the overwhelming majority of kids who die in hot cars are either forgotten for hours or climb into empty vehicles without anyone noticing.

Further, heavy-handed intervention after mere minutes can have tremendous costs. In the first place, it imposes a burden on police departments. Officers who could be responding to rape, robbery, and murder calls waste valuable time imprisoning nonviolent offenders who have harmed nothing and nobody, and local jails waste time and money processing them and jailing them, not to mention the time and resources devoted to subsequent court appearances.

It also imposes a staggering burden upon families. It boggles the mind that anyone could think that children’s health and safety would be better served by locking their parents up for something that poses only a miniscule risk of hurting them—given that locking their parents up would certainly hurt them. And the parents may be branded for life and separated from their children.

Intervention on behalf of unattended children, whether spurred by concerns about neglect or required by statute, may be well-intentioned. Advocates of such intervention may truly be seeking the best interests of children. But meaning well is not the same thing as doing well.

Just ask the Dorings.

The Heritage Foundation’s project USA vs. YOU spotlights the flood of criminal laws threatening our liberties. Explore more stories of overcriminalization and find out what you can do to reverse this trend.