Hot Debate: Is It Ever OK to Leave Your Child in the Car?

Recent deaths of children left alone in hot cars re-ignites parenting debate.

ByABC News
August 7, 2014, 12:07 PM

— -- When an exasperated mother left her fussy 4-year-old alone in the car for a few minutes while she ran an errand, she never imagined that split-second decision would lead to criminal charges.

“I don’t think I put my child in danger,” Kim Brooks told “20/20.” “[But] some people certainly think I’ve made a mistake. Some people, very strongly, feel that children should never be out of your sight… and that I took a risk I shouldn’t have.”

It was March 2011. Brooks was running late to catch a flight with her two young children, her then-4-year-old son and then-18-month-old daughter, when she realized her son’s headphones that he used to watch movies and play games with on her iPad were broken and she didn’t have a spare. She decided to run to the store to get new ones, leaving the baby in her mother’s care and taking her son with her.

When she got to the store parking lot, Brooks said her son was playing a game on the iPad and was putting up a fight about coming in with her. Instead of risking a temper tantrum in public, Brooks decided to leave him behind in the car -- something she said she had never done before.

“It was really a split-second decision,” Brooks said. “I didn’t sit there and mull it over for very long because I was in a hurry. At that moment, it felt safe. It was a pretty quick decision.”

“It was a cool day. It was probably under 50 degrees, overcast day, and it was a safe neighborhood,” she continued. “So at that moment, I just thought, I’m not putting him in harm’s way by... letting him wait in the car while I get this one item.”

So Brooks parked as close to the store as possible, cracked the windows, locked the car doors, which activated the car’s alarm system, and ran in. When she returned a few minutes later, she said her son was still there happily playing his game. So she drove home, picked up the baby and the luggage, headed to the airport and made their flight.

But what Brooks didn’t know at the time was that someone in the store parking lot had been watching her. Using his cell phone camera, an anonymous person allegedly videotaped her leaving her son alone in the car, and then coming back minutes later and driving away. Then, this person turned the video into police, who traced the license plate on the car back to Brooks.

Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a fine.

“When that happens, you’re not just being called a bad mother, but you’re being charged, basically, with being a bad mother,” she said. “It’s very humiliating and very embarrassing.”

Brooks first wrote about her ordeal in a June article for Salon, which went viral and helped launch a national discussion about whether it’s OK for parents to leave children alone in cars. The so-called “baby left in hot car” debate also was re-ignited with the recent deaths of a 22-month-old boy in Georgia and a 10-month-old girl in Kansas, whose caregivers are accused of leaving them in overheated cars alone for hours. Just two weeks ago, paramedics were called to a Walmart parking lot in Pennsylvania to rescue an infant from a hot car.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 605 children died in hot cars from 1998 to 2013.