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Then I left him in the car for all of five minutes. 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. Sometimes I feel as if I can hear something. We flew home. My husband was waiting for us with a terrible look on his face.
She was crying. In the months that followed, I pieced together what had happened. 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? 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. 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 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 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. But what happens when common sense about what is safe for a child changes dramatically within a generation? What happens when common sense about what is safe for a child changes dramatically within a generation? We remember taking off on bikes alone, playing in the woods for hours, crawling through storm drains to follow creek beds. 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 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. 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. But when as a culture did we decide that any unsupervised child is an imperiled one?