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No child left behind? Leaving kids in car never advised, but not always illegal

Whether to leave your kids in the car when you run a quick errand can be a difficult decision for some parents, and there are no clear rules or guidelines for when it is/isn't OK. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION | FORUM COMMUNICATIONS1 / 2
Child supervision guidelines2 / 2

FARGO - The kids are strapped into their car seats. Maybe they're asleep. It's just a quick errand, a couple minutes in the store. Is it OK to leave them in the car?

The answer can be as gray as a pewter sedan.

It's a choice parents may make from time to time. Recently, two such decisions made news regionally when police became involved.

A 21-year-old Bagley, woman was charged June 13 with one count of child endangerment after leaving her four children in a car while going into Bemidji's Target to try on swimsuits. Police noted it was 88 degrees outside when they were called to the store parking lot.

Less than a week earlier, Fargo officers broke a car window June 8 after a mother left her 4-year-old son sleeping in the shut-off car outside a Wal-Mart store. The boy was unharmed.

Often, summertime headlines involving kids in cars are tragic cases of a young child being forgotten in the back seat. More than 500 children across the U.S. have died of heat stroke after being left alone in a vehicle since 1998, according to the organization SafeKids.

But in 17 percent of these cases, the child was intentionally left alone in the car, SafeKids literature says.

While the temperature is a primary concern in the summertime, it's only one of a number of worries that come with leaving kids unattended in a car.

Children could be injured by power windows, or put the vehicle into gear. They could get out and be hit by another car in the parking lot. The car could start on fire. There's the risk of the vehicle being stolen, or the child abducted or otherwise harmed.

The advice from SafeKids is to never leave your child alone in a car, not even for a minute. Social service workers and police echo that sentiment.

"I think that's the best practice, the cleanest," says Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel. "But that's probably not realistic in a lot of cases."

Given the realities of parenting, personal opinions differ on when it is OK to leave kids inside a car. Vettel says he and his wife disagree slightly on what's appropriate.

Safety advocates use words like "reasonable" and "common sense," but shy from providing specific situations when parents can leave kids in vehicles unattended.

There are simply too many variables, they say, such as the child's age, the weather, location, time of day and length of time.

There is no law against leaving children in a car, though egregious cases could be considered child neglect. The totality of the situation is taken into account when law enforcement or social services get involved, Vettel says.

Social service workers often play an educational role, says Rick VanCamp, Child Protective Services supervisor at Cass County (N.D.) Social Services. Parents aren't always aware of the potential dangers.

The expectation is caregivers shouldn't leave children in the car, VanCamp says. That's what he tells parents who do so when dropping off economic assistance paperwork at the county's offices.

However, a child supervision guideline chart provided by Cass County Social Services indicates that children younger than 9 can be left in a car unattended for a limited time, except in hot or cold weather. The document does not define "hot" or "cold," and neither would VanCamp.

Children newborn through age 4 must be in view of caregiver and in a restraint, the guidelines say. For kids age 5 through 11, the keys should be removed and emergency brake applied. A footnote states that "the parent should recognize their responsibility for using reasonable judgment and for any incident or mishap considered preventable which occurs."

North Dakota guidelines (developed by a child protection task force in 1996, VanCamp says) read that children 0 to 4 "should not be left alone in a vehicle for more than a brief period of time," in direct view of the caregiver and in a restraint.

If parents do leave a child in the car, VanCamp says it's important they have a direct line of access and the ability to act immediately.

Vettel's opinion is small children should never be left in the car unattended. "If something happens, they can't protect themselves," he says.

Cars are meant for travel with an adult, "not a place to leave a child so you know where they are," says Bobbi Paper, injury prevention coordinator with Sanford Children's and Safe Kids Fargo/ Moorhead.

"It's not meant to be a babysitter," she adds.

Too often, a 30-second errand turns into 5 or 10 minutes, Paper says. The temperature inside a car can rise 20 degrees in 10 minutes, even if a window is slightly open. Plus, a child's body heats up three to five times as fast as an adult body, she says.

"If you wouldn't leave your child alone anywhere else, you're not going to want to leave them alone in a vehicle," Paper says.

Trina Montplaisir, a Fargo mom of three, says she has left her children in the car on occasion.

She did so when she had only a newborn in the car in the wintertime and had to run in to pay for gas.

Now her 7- and 9-year-old sons often don't want to come inside with her. She won't lock her 3-year-old daughter in the car if the older boys aren't with her, and she doesn't do it when it's hot outside.

"If I know it's going to be a handful of minutes, I do it," she says. "And I pray. I know it's wrong. I take the risk."