My Psalm 55
An Atlanta mother left her children ages one to six years alone in a car at the grocery store for less than twenty minutes. She now is facing legal censure and possibly a future which include incarceration. The basis for the police action was the temperature which was hovering around ninety degrees in the hot Georgia summer. That begs two questions: Was the mother neglectful in her actions? Would she have been charged if the temperature was fifty-nine degrees which, in the sun, would have raised the temperature in the car to a balmy seventy-five degrees?
In the 1980’s there was a federal law which stated no child under the age of twelve could be left alone on federal property. Designed to protect children living in military housing, it had further ramifications such as children in cars at a post office (federal property), in parking facilities at federal court houses and other office buildings, and even those in parking areas around federal jails.
For some reason, we as a nation cannot come to a consensus on what constitutes child neglect and child abandonment. However, we all understand when a friend has been proven untrustworthy, what actions lead to a person being considered a “tattletale” or a “snitch”, or the stupidity of leaving a clear plastic bag of money on a city park bench unattended. Children, however, seem to have a variable worth.
Currently only three states have laws that specifically list a minimum age for leaving children alone. In Illinois a child must be fourteen years old before being left alone and yes, that includes babysitting. In Oregon ten years of age is deemed responsible for being left alone and in the state of Maryland, the age is eight years. While most would not be prosecuted for such, this includes children walking to school, from school to the library, a friend’s house, a relative’s house, or to the park.
Many states, most states have child protection laws but these refer to child neglect and that is defined as failing to provide something called “adequate supervision”. Anyone and everyone should be concerned over this lack of a concise definition because the lack of it opens the door to inconsistent prosecution and discrimination.
A decade ago a mother calmly walked into a police station in Baltimore and sat her three children down on a nearby bench. Assuming she was there to address a parking ticket or other minor offense handled at the desk, no one really paid her much attention. As the line grew shorter, officers realize the young woman had left but her children were still there. Several hours passed and child protective services assumed custody of the children. However, when the mother was located, no charges were filed. The court deemed she had left them with responsible parties – the police. When the police chief protested, the judge simply asked: Chief, are your officers not responsible?”
Children are living things and, as with all living things, they mature at different rates. You can have three rose bushes, all the same variety side-by-side, but there is no way to guarantee that all three will bud and blossom at exactly the same precise moment. A child’s maturity is but one criterion for determining when to let them be alone. Conventional wisdom in the past had parents asking themselves how safe their neighborhood was or what hazards were present. Sadly, the reality is that most child predators and serial killers do not look like monsters. For the middle class family, the greatest statistical threat will be a friend, their child’s coach or teacher, or the local pastor or minister.
There are solutions and one of the first is parent education. Seen as something “bad parents” had to do, slowly society is becoming aware of the benefits of everyone participating in parent education. Knowing how to correctly assess your child’s development, planning how to approach challenges as they arise, and learning the correct way to establish a support network are just some of the benefits parent education programs offer in strengthening families and preventing child maltreatment.
Several days ago the difference between ministering and judging was discussed. All too often we are quick to judge parents while failing to minister or assist. It is possible to respect the traditions and values of the many types of families, value the parent learning styles, preferences, and incorporate cultural beliefs in parenting in the twenty-first century.
At issue is whether or not we want to be a reactive society or a preventative society. These are the two options we have and the choices states and government agencies have in addressing the issue of child welfare and health. Child health is measured by the Annie E Casey Foundation in their annual publication “Kids Count”. The winner for most improved state in 2014 is Tennessee and it leads the nation in juvenile justice reform. Cooperation between state agencies, local governments, and educational and health institutions is seen as a huge step in their achieving this designation. Also involved in their progress is a reduction in the state’s reliance on confinement as a response to juvenile crime and child welfare issues. They are ministering instead of judging.
As parents, we need to remember our responsibility to the children of our world. Children are not like a purse or tie, an object to be packed into the suitcase of our life. They are living, breathing beings, the future and our legacy. They will grow into what we have taught them is their worth. When we value a quick trip to the store above their health, we are reducing them to less than the tires on our cars. Being a single parent in tough. I speak from personal experience. Waking a child up to take to the store, into the store in a blinding blizzard, to get more Tylenol or cough syrup seems to make no sense. To a parent who has returned home to an injured or dead child left alone, it seems like such a small inconvenience.
Our hectic modern lifestyle needs to value our children. We need to recognize that we are their best friends. When we put our needs above theirs, when we fail to make their welfare as important as that plastic bag of money that no one would leave unattended in a public venue, we have betrayed not only their trust but our love. Just as our beliefs are always a source of comfort and strength to us, so must we be to the children of the world. Otherwise that faith and those beliefs make us a soul wandering alone without a home.
My Psalm 55
God, are you there?
I am so upset and really need you.
I thought I was loved;
I thought I had worth.
I am but a mere inconvenience.
Those who claimed to be my friends lied.
Their actions betrayed their words.
My heart is heavy and my soul scared.
My eyes cannot see for the tears of fear.
I expect such from strangers and evil ones.
I did not know friends and family could be so mean.
Do not forsake me, dear Lord.
Be there with me, please.
I am giving you my fear, Great Spirit.
You will not turn away from me;
You will not go against me.
In you is my trust, Heavenly One.