Mom Charged With Child Endangerment for Letting Kids Go to Mall Alone

PHOTO: Bridget Kevane

When Bridget Kevane dropped her three children and their two friends off at a Montana mall in June 2007, she never thought that a few hours later she'd have a criminal record.

But that's what happened when Kevane let her daughter Natalie, 12, and her best friend of the same age take three younger children -- including Kevane's 3-year-old daughter -- to the mall without adult supervision.

"I was definitely in shock," Kevane told ABCNews.com of her initial reaction when told that she would be charged with a criminal offense because of her decision to let her kids roam the mall alone.

Under Montana State law, a parent can be charged with child endangerment if he or she "knowingly endangers the child's welfare by violating a duty of care, protection, or support."

When the two 12-year-olds went inside a Macy's dressing room to try shirts on and left the three younger children, ages 8, 7 and 3, unattended, an employee called mall security. Police were called to the scene and they summoned Kevane and her husband to the mall and arrested Bridget Kevane. She was allowed to leave the mall with the children, but given a court date for a few days later.

"I really thought I could make the policeman understand that there was some mistake or some misunderstanding," said Kevane, who ended up having to call a bail supervisor every Monday for six months as part of a deal her lawyer brokered with prosecutors.

Kevane, 45, who wrote in an essay published in this month's issue of parenting magazine "Brain, Child," said that her decision to let the kids go to the mall unsupervised stemmed from the fact that "the children wanted an activity, and I wanted a couple of hours of quiet and rest."

Further justifying her decision was the fact that the two older girls had both completed a babysitting certification course at a nearby hospital and that the group of five children consistently spent time together and were like "extended family" to one another.

"I have faith in my daughter... I had no reason to doubt her," Kevane said.

Mothers React to Kevane Leaving Kids at a Mall

Kevane's actions have become the latest parenting decision that has grabbed the attention of parenting groups nationwide, groups that are often not shy when it comes to passing judgment on other mothers.

But unlike the negative reaction New York mother Madlyn Primoff received when she made headlines in April for kicking her two bickering tweens out of the car and making them walk three miles home, Kevane's story is rallying a group of supporters.

"I feel for this mother," said Julie Tower-Pierce, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has three children of her own.

Tower-Pierce says that while she does have reservations about a 3-year-old left in the care of a 12-year-old, she believes that a mother should be able to make a parenting decision without worrying about being slapped with a criminal charge.

"I think that while you need these [child endangerment] laws, we have to be so cautious about whether they are applied in an abusive fashion," said Tower-Pierce. "This case seems like an abuse of power."

Ilina Ewen, a mother of two who writes for the Deep South Mom's Blog, agrees.

"She wasn't intentionally trying to harm her children and she understood the context of the situation and the kids' relationship to one another," said Ewen. "She didn't need to be arrested."

Bozeman Police Department Deputy Chief Marty Kent, who works at the same station that arrested Kevane June 16, 2007, declined to comment specifically about the case, which was sealed by a judge in 2008.

Kent did say that in cases of child endangerment, police often err on the side of caution.

"When a child is left alone, the officer does the best they can to find and make sure care is provided for and that they're not in harm's way," said Kent. "We make a judgment call based on the statute" regarding child endangerment.

When asked what he'd say to the many parents who told ABCNews.com that the Bozeman Police Department went too far in charging Kevane, Kent said that he believed the officers always make their decisions with the child's safety in mind.

"We're not going to take a chance with a child's life safety," said Kent. "We've got some weird people here. We have murderers, and we have a huge meth problem. This is a real city, this isn't Mayberry."

Let Kids Be Kids, Some Say

Naivety about the dangers of the real world, even in a place like Bozeman, Mont., is what gave self-proclaimed "Safety Mom" Alison Rhodes pause about Kevane's decision.

"While I don't think she should have been prosecuted, it does raise questions," said Rhodes. "To entrust a 3-year-old in the care of a 12-year-old, even if it's a small town, is irresponsible.

"There are people out there who are going to grab children and a 12-year-old is not equipped to handle all situations," said Rhodes.

Lenore Skenazy, the author of the book "Free-Range Kids" and the mother made famous after allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway system alone, told ABCNews.com that coming up with nightmare scenarios for parents is causing them to raise children who are ill-equipped to fend for themselves.

"Parents are willing to take the risk of driving in a car with their kids and they don't base their judgment on only watching Nascar races," said Skenazy. "But we make our judgments about pedophilia and kidnapping based on what we've seen on the news and on [crime shows]. Those are crammed with the weirdest, saddest anomalies of stories they can gather."

Skenazy said that parents today are led to believe they're doing something wrong if they "don't have almost the same kind of surveillance on their kids that they have in high security prisons."

Kevane, speaking to ABCNews.com on her way to visit her daughter Natalie, who is now 15, at sleep away camp in Maine, said that she still stands by her decision to let her kids go to the mall alone that day, even if she does recognize that her daughter did break the rules by leaving the younger children without supervision when both older girls went into changing rooms.

"Did she make a mistake? Yeah, and that happens," Kevane said of her daughter. "But I just felt that my daughter could handle the situation, I really did."

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