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What should you do if you see a child alone in a car on a hot day? Add to ...

You walk past a car on sunny summer day, with a couple kids inside alone, and no parent in sight. What do you do?

A father in the United States, recently sought the answer to this question on Slate when, after leaving a store on a hot day, he spotted two girls - about 12 and 9 - in a car, with the windows closed. They’d only been there a few minutes, he estimated, but, as he waited another 10 minutes went by. He saw the older girl fanning the younger one. So he bought a bottle of water, waved to get the girls’ attention, and left it on the trunk. (As an added consideration, he explains, he didn’t have his own kids with him, and he was worried about the optics of a single man, a stranger, approaching two little girls in a car - the very concern, incidentally, often cited by police, for why you don’t leave them there in the first place.) He didn’t call the police. Eventually a woman appeared, looked baffled by the bottled water, and drove away with the girls. Later, he wondered, should 911 have been his first response?

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It’s about to be that season, when cars get really hot really fast, and somewhere in North American, every parent’s nightmare will inevitably happen: They’ll drive to work, get distracted and forget their child in the back seat, with tragic results. According San Francisco State University research, so far in 2014 in the U.S., 11 children have died of heatstroke from being left in a car. In 2013, in the U.S., the total was 44. According to the study, of 606 deaths between 1998 and 2013, 29 per cent of the children were playing in the car (and may have wandered in there alone), 18 per cent were intentionally left by an adult, and 52 per cent were forgotten by a caregiver.

There are plenty of examples here at home too. In May, a woman was charged after her two-year-old son was left in a car in an Edmonton parking lot for more than 35 minutes, with temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius. A Toronto man was charged in January with child abandonment after a two-year-old girl was left in a cold car outside Costco. In those cases, the children survived. In the most horrible examples, parents have returned too late to their vehicles.

The bottom line: If you are worried a child is in danger - especially on hot days - always err on the side of caution and call 911, says Constable Chuck Benoit, a spokesperson for the Ottawa Police Service.

Police respond to every call, although, Benoit says, they will exercise discretion in laying charges, considering factors such as the age of the child and whether they were in danger. “The general rule is never leave a child in the car,” he says, “but we know it’s going to happen.” In Canada, the Criminal Code sets a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone who “unlawfully abandons” a child under the age of 10. But charges can also be laid if a child under the age of 16 is endangered.

For instance, leaving your responsible 13-year-old alone in the car with his nine-year-old brother on a fall day while you grab a couple groceries is probably okay. Leaving them alone in a stifling hot car, though, might generate some pointed questions. Under age 10, and you could face charges, or at least a call from Children’s Aid. And even if you drive off, Benoit says, if someone records your license plate and calls the police, you can expect a home visit and possible charges.

That’s what happened to Kim Brooks, an American writer, who left her four-year-old in a car for five minutes while visiting her mother out of town. Police turned up at her mom’s house once she had flown home with her family, after taking down a citizen’s complaint with the borrowed car’s license plate. Even though temperature wasn’t a factor, Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and after several years spent paying lawyer’s fees, she appeared in a court, where the prosecutor agreed not to pursue the charges if she completed 100 hours of community service and attended a parenting class.

This is the grey area that Benoit also describes in a Canadian context, that ultimately means a police officer could be deciding whether you committed a crime with a maximum five-year jail term, by leaving your nine-year-old in the car to grab milk at the convenience store.

Benoit also warns against parents who leave the car running with the air conditioning going. “If I was a bad guy,” he says, “and wanted to steal a car, that would be a good car to steal; and now I have kids I have to deal with.”

This is the kind of fraught-with-fear issue that infuriates Lenore Skenazy, the found of the Free Range Kids movement. When Brooks reached out to her, Skenazy observed that every parenting decision comes with risk - whether she had taken her son into the store, or left him in the car. “We now live in a society where most people believe a child cannot be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision,” she is quoted saying in Salong piece. “This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”

And perhaps that’s the problem: All this irrational fear is making us doubt our own common-sense instincts - the ones that tell us when to relax and back off, and when walking away is the wrong decision.

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