Crime & Courts

Was it ever OK to leave kids in the car alone? The times are changing

Every year on average, 37 children die in hot cars nationally.
Every year on average, 37 children die in hot cars nationally. Photo provided by www.kidsandcars.org

No one wants to be known as the parent who left a kid in a hot car. That’s what one Lexington County woman discovered last week, when deputies charged her with two counts of unlawful conduct toward a child.

Maria Rivas-Velazques, 34, had tried to play it safe. She told law enforcement that her 5-year-old daughter and 23-month-old son were inside a locked, air conditioned truck for just a few minutes while she ran into Lowe’s on Augusta Road near West Columbia, according to the incident report from the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department.

She still spent the night in jail and faces an October court date and up to 10 years in prison.

South Carolina – and the nation – is facing a change in standards about what’s acceptable. Parents who might have been left on their own when they were young wouldn’t dream of leaving their own kids nowadays.

“While it was not in the heat, I can remember being left alone in a car with my brother while my mom ran into the store and just really hating it,” said Bett Williams, spokeswoman for Children’s Trust of South Carolina.

Were the kids in Lexington County in danger? Because state law does not have a statute dealing with unattended children in vehicles, officers have discretion on when to charge parents and guardians with other offenses – such as unlawful conduct toward a child. The sheriff’s department declined to specify what danger the deputy who arrested Rivas-Velazquez thought the children were in, though arrests warrants cite the heat index – 91 degrees at the time – as threatening the children’s health and safety, despite the mother saying the air conditioning was on.

Still, it’s a bad idea to leave kids alone – even with air conditioning – law enforcement and child welfare advocates say.

“To me, it’s just as bad,” said Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster. “Because of the fact that if you’ve got a child left in a car and the car is running, what’s to keep the child from putting the car in gear? What’s to keep the child – maybe a child is not quite of an age to understand – what’s to keep them from cutting the air conditioning off by accident?”

Foster said his deputies might issue a warning or press a criminal charge depending on specific circumstances. Catching a parent stepping out of a vehicle, on the verge of leaving a kid, is one thing – but if someone has abandoned a child, even for a short time, that’s another matter.

“If we have to go into the store to find them, or have to extract the child, they have to answer for that,” Foster said.

As the weather heats up, there is national scrutiny on cases of kids in hot vehicles. On Wednesday, a Texas man was charged with manslaughter after officials say he forgot his 6-month-old daughter in a car, then tried to revive her in a fridge before calling 911.

Advocates say it’s important to build good habits to avoid such deadly mistakes. Michelle Dhunjishah, director of the Children’s Law Center at the University of South Carolina, said in a majority of cases where kids are left in vehicles, it’s because parents are distracted.

When should concerned citizens get involved? Dhunjishah said it’s crucial to be vigilant – even when a vehicle seems to be air conditioned.

“People should call 911 immediately and follow whatever 911 says,” Dhunjishah said. “They’ll probably want you to look and see if the car is unlocked, check the condition of the child or children – you might be asked to remove the child from the car – it just depends on the circumstances.”

Some of these situations also can be representative of a larger problem. State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said instances such as the one in Lexington County point to how the state’s safety net fails mothers.

“I can’t condone leaving kids unattended in a hot car – even with air conditioning running,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I have to say that for the record. The other piece of this, to me, suggests we need to look at childcare and the lack thereof. What it suggests to me is, perhaps, this mother had no options for childcare.”

After a situation happens, should a parent face a criminal charge and go to jail? Advocates say it’s not always a simple question.

“For us, you have to look at it in (terms of) what’s going to be best for the children,” said Williams, of the Children’s Trust. “Is it going to be best for that parent to be punished to the point where (the children) are separated from a parent and go into foster care, or they go live with a relative? Or is there training and education that can help a family solve the problem? It is traumatic for any child to be separated from its parent.”

Richland County is no stranger to every parent’s worst nightmare – a child dying in a hot car. In 2015, a 4-year-old was found in a neighbor’s unattended, unlocked car. He was South Carolina’s first and only hyperthermia death for the year.

This year, no children have died from hyperthermia in South Carolina.

Staff writer Cynthia Roldán contributed. Glen Luke Flanagan: 803-771-8305, @glenlflanagan

THE HOT FACTS

Officials stress that even a few minutes in a hot car is enough to harm a child. The vehicle becomes an oven, with temperatures rising almost 2 degrees every minute.

During a 10-minute period, temperatures rise an average of 19 degrees, according to a website dedicated to tracking hyperthermia deaths run by San Jose State University’s Department of Meteorology and Climate Science.

HEAT OUTSIDE AND IN

How hot is your car compared with the temperature outside? This chart from the city of Columbia lays it out in degrees Fahrenheit.

Temp Outside

Temp In Car After 10 Minutes

Temp In Car After 60 Minutes

68

81

115

75

88

122

82

95

129

90

102

136

97

109

144

SOURCE: American Meteorological Society

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