When I returned, he was still playing his game, smiling. In the two years that followed, I replayed this moment again and again: getting in the car, looking in the rearview mirror, pulling away. I replay it trying to uncover something I didn’t notice … a voice, a face. Sometimes I feel as if I can hear something. “Bye now.” But I can’t be sure.
We flew home. My husband was waiting for us with a terrible look on his face. “Call your mom,” he said. She was crying. When she’d gotten home from taking us to the airport, the police had been in her driveway.
In the months that followed, I pieced together what had happened. A stranger saw me leave my son in the car or came upon him after I’d gone into the store. They recorded him playing his game. They recorded my license plate. They recorded me driving away. At some point they called the police. Someone must have filed a complaint. But what kind of complaint? Had I endangered my child? Had I broken a law? It didn’t seem to matter. All that mattered was that someone thought they had seen a child in danger and had said something — not to me, but to the authorities.
As soon as I returned home, I spoke with a lawyer, who did his best to persuade the police that I was a good mom who’d had a momentary lapse in judgment, with no history of abuse or neglect. The police wouldn’t tell him whether they planned to press charges — I’d just have to wait and see. And so that was what I did.
For nearly a year, I heard nothing. I worried and hoped for the best, feeling on edge in public with my children. I’d never been socially anxious, but now I found myself wondering if strangers were watching how I related to my kids, judging me when one was crying or wearing only one mitten because the other had been flung away when I wasn’t looking. I chided myself for paranoia. Then, one morning in May, I received a phone call from an officer in Virginia, asking if I was aware of the outstanding warrant for my arrest.
Virginia, like most states, has few guidelines about how closely parents are expected to supervise their children. As a result, I was charged not with leaving my son in the car, but with the misdemeanor of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
A few months later, not far from where my incident took place, I read about an African-American mother who was charged with child neglect when she ran into a gas station to buy candy while her kids waited. I began to research these cases and talk to other mothers facing charges, and I concluded that being deemed a “bad” or neglectful mother depends as much on what you look like, where you live and how much money you have to defend yourself as on what you actually did. I spoke to a woman who was taken into custody and separated from her daughter for weeks for allowing the child to play unsupervised in a crowded park. When such cases enter the legal system, we give judges and prosecutors leeway to decide if a parent’s actions are reckless, expecting them to apply common sense to individual cases. But what happens when common sense about what is safe for a child changes dramatically within a generation?
“Did our parents really let us do that?” is a game my friends and I sometimes play. We remember taking off on bikes alone, playing in the woods for hours, crawling through storm drains to follow creek beds. And so many of my childhood memories involve unsupervised time in cars in parking lots just like the one where I’d left my son. I wondered in the days after the incident whether being back home, out of the city, had given me a sort of momentary amnesia. A lot can change in 25 years.
I often hear people say that the world is not as safe as it used to be, and I’ve come to believe this is true — but not for the reasons they assume. Crime rates are lower today than when I was a kid; you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than abducted by a stranger. And yet it’s hard to feel as if your children are safe in a world where neighbors don’t know one another and it seems as though strangers may be just as likely to shame you or call the police than start a conversation. I grew up in a time when I could play and bike in the neighborhood, largely because my parents assumed that if I ever needed help, I could ask a nearby adult. Today I’d hesitate to tell my kids to do the same, not because I’m worried that they’ll be kidnapped but because I worry about seeming like a neglectful mother to a Good Samaritan with a camera on her phone.
This was the incident’s greatest impact on my life as a mother: the fear it gave me and my children of people who don’t know us but think they know best — strangers with no time for human interaction, for giving the benefit of the doubt.
Now, when I talk about what happened, people are usually sympathetic, but they will often also express sympathy for the person who called the police. They’ll say things like, “If I thought I saw a child in danger and did nothing, and something happened, I couldn’t live with myself.” As a human being, I feel the same. But when as a culture did we decide that any unsupervised child is an imperiled one? And when did “doing something” become synonymous with calling the police? I do my best to resist the fear and isolation around us. I make a point of talking to strangers whenever I can and encourage my kids to do so as well, not just because studies show it correlates to happiness and a sense of well-being, but also because this seems to me like an essential part of building the kind of society in which I want my kids to live.
My case was closed almost two years after that day in Virginia. In exchange for my completing 100 hours of community service and parenting education, the prosecutor agreed to drop the charges. I felt a great sense of gratitude and relief, even as the fallout from that day burrowed into our family’s subconscious.
At the time of the incident, my son never mentioned it, and I assumed he was unaware of it. But of course kids are astute observers. There was a period of time for several months after I was charged where if I was out of his sight, he would worry that the police were going to come. Once, after his swim lesson, he came out of the bathroom and didn’t see me — I’d knelt to get his shoes. When I looked up, he was crying. “Mommy, Mommy! I thought someone was going to steal me.”
That evening, I sat him down and tried to explain. Mommy wasn’t going to jail. No one was going to kidnap him. There were people who thought kids were always in danger, that the world was a scary place. But that wasn’t what I believed, and he didn’t have to either.
“Most people,” I told him, “are not trying to hurt you. Most people are good. You don’t have to be afraid.”