ILION – On Oct. 23, a concerned citizen called Ilion police to report that a young child had been left unattended in a car in the Kinney Drugs parking lot. The concerned caller had been sitting by the vehicle keeping watch as the minutes ticked by: six minutes, seven, eight.
As police arrived, the child’s mother emerged from Dunkin Donuts, nine minutes after leaving her car and 20-month-old child.
Police arrested the mother, 28-year-old Melanie L. Derby, of West Winfield, and charged her with endangering the welfare of a child. Derby was arraigned and released on her own recognizance to answer the charge in court at a later date.
The incident raises questions as to how young is too young and how long is too long to leave children alone either in a vehicle or at home, and what is deemed neglect or maltreatment. And there is no clear-cut easy answer, say both Ilion police and child protective services.
“It’s always on a case by case basis,” said Captain Laurie DeVaul as to which circumstances bring about charges for parents.
“Most of the time when someone gets in trouble, it’s because they’ve taken it to an extreme,” commented Investigator Jeremiah Sninchak. “In this case, we had a very young child, strapped into a car seat, for nearly 10 minutes and the mother had no visual contact. And there were other contributing factors as well.” Sninchak declined to comment on exactly what those other factors involved.
“It’s one thing to run in for 30 seconds and throw down a $20 at the gas station, but something very different to leave an infant unmonitored for an extended period,” DeVaul added.
“A broad-stroke definition is whether the child’s physical, mental or emotional condition is impaired or placed in imminent danger of being impaired… by failing to provide proper supervision,” said Herkimer County Commissioner of Social Services Tim Seymour. “But a case like this does not automatically equal neglect and abuse. Any time something like this comes up, it’s looked at on a case by case basis. There could be a million contributing factors. Is this the first time the child was left alone? Is this the fifth time? And while I think it’s pretty clear on the one hand, as with any law, there is a degree of interpretation.”
DeVaul explained that any time police are called to a scene in which there is a question about a child left alone, whether it be in a vehicle or at home, police assess the situation and, if possible, talk to the child as well.
“Age doesn’t always matter,” Sninchak said. “You can have one 10-year-old up at this level, who would be capable of watching a younger sibling and themselves for a short time, and another 10-year-old down here who really shouldn’t be left alone. It depends on the maturity of the child.”
“But at the same time, age does play a factor,” DeVaul pointed out. “Leaving a 12-year-old home alone for an hour is generally not a problem. Leaving a 6-year-old alone that long, even a relatively mature one, that’s irresponsible.”
And when it comes to leaving a child in a car, it no longer becomes simply a question of the child’s maturity and ability to take of itself, but a safety issue. Time after time reports have been made public of children and animals left in a car for even a short time during the warm summer months and becoming overheated to the point of death. In the winter, cars get cold quickly and stationary idling cars can pose a carbon monoxide risk.
Another risk comes from other people. A child, alone and highly visible in a car, can pose an easy target for those looking to do harm.
The bottom line, police and social services agree, is to use care and common sense, and when in doubt, play it safe and keep children with you or in the care of another mature and trusted adult.