It’s one of the perennial mom arguments: Should you leave your kid in the car alone for a few minutes? What if the vehicle is locked? What if you can see it? What if the weather is mild? I’m not scared to leave my sons in the car for the three minutes it takes me to run in and pay for gas. I’m scared that, despite there being no law against it, someone might decide I’m doing something wrong. I’m scared that person might notify the police. And Heather DeStein is living my worst nightmare.
Heather DeStein, a 28-year-old mother had a 3-month-old daughter Reilly, a fiancé to drive to work, a killer case of postpartum depression and anxiety, and on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, a case of total exhaustion. Reilly had “really choppy sleep the night before,” she said, and had woken at 4:30 a.m., which meant Heather had been up since 4:30, too. Later in the morning, she put Reilly in her car seat and drove her fiancé Daran to work at P.F. Chang’s. Finally, blessedly, Reilly conked out somewhere between 10 and 10:15 a.m., just as she dropped Daran off. A few minutes later, she pulled into the Wawa three minutes from her house in Prince William County, VA, smack in the DC metro area. Reilly was asleep, finally. It was 36 degrees outside, and much warmer in the car, where the heater was running. The baby had on a winter onesie — “the kind made of thicker material,” Heather said. She saw there was no line inside.
So she got out of her vehicle. She locked it. And she went inside, where she kept the car in her line of sight the entire time. Heather got a donut, since she hadn’t eaten yet that morning. And when she came outside in her sweatpants and sweatshirt, she saw a man standing next to her car. He was wearing tactical pants and a long-sleeved polo. “You know there’s a baby in there, right?” he said.
“Yes, I was gone for like three minutes,” she said — three minutes which were confirmed by Wawa’s security camera footage. But Heather says, “All the man did was ask for my ID and go sit in his car, which was parked two down from me, and sat there. Fifteen minutes later he came back to get some info about my address.” Then, he said to her, “It’s freezing out here. You should know better.”
Heather says, “I started crying. I was freaked out. I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I’m sorry.’ That sort of thing. I was trying to cooperate in hopes he would let me go with a warning. There’s no law against what I did. I was in shock about the whole thing.”
After that, things progressed rapidly. Another cop car showed up with two officers. According to Heather, as they charged her, one of the men said he was “a new dad, and your daughter has to be like your third appendage, but he’s made mistakes, and he understands where I was coming from.” She was technically arrested, but released into the custody of her fiancé who showed up to get her and their daughter.
But it didn’t end there.
CPS opened a case. They showed up at Heather’s house that day and asked a number of ignominious questions — about her pregnancy, her mental health, her past addiction (Heather is a 18-months-sober alcoholic, an amazing accomplishment). Finally, the worker said, in Heather’s words, “They were going to make a safety plan. [It read] 3-month-old was left alone in vehicle, unattended. Says it will not happen again, and 3-month-old will be supervised at all times.” They said they would contact her fiancé the next day, but didn’t contact him until very recently, when he was told that they were closing and dismissing the case — on CPS’s end.
But not on the police’s end.
Heather is still being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a child. Her trial is in July, and with a court-appointed lawyer, she’s fears she could be facing conviction or jail time. Her lawyer urged her to plead guilty for a lighter sentence, so she did an 18-hour parenting course instead. He’s going to move for dismissal. As Heather says, “I’m trying to just get this over and done. I know I’m going to probably end up with this misdemeanor on my record. I just want it to go away.” She and her now-husband want to move to California to be closer to her family, and this is holding them back. “We can’t move because of it,” she says. “Everything had been falling into place, and then this happened.”
The nasty internet comments from her birth board and BabyCenter — the thread about it runs to 93 pages — have gotten Heather down too. Many of them read like some variation of Bjc0729: “You put your child in a situation where there could have been potential for harm. Hell, I don’t even like to leave my child in the crib with the baby monitor on while I’m getting laundry even though I’m only going to be downstairs even though I know she is perfectly safe sleeping. Call it paranoia, call it being a helicopter mom.” But most of them are much harsher, more judgmental, more hypercritical.
Heather says, “I wouldn’t do it again because I have this huge feeling of guilt these people drove into me [that my baby would be kidnapped].” This despite, as Free-Range Kids says, “Murders of children by abductors constitute less than one half of 1% of all murders in America.” Heather continues to take several prescription medications for the depression she’s suffered since she was at least 14 years old.
It gets worse. Heather was a police officer in New Mexico for three years and involved in law enforcement for five. There’s no law there against leaving a child in a car, unless it’s hot. She legitimately didn’t think she was doing anything wrong. Heather’s child was warm and cozy in her car seat, and in fact slept, car off, for the hour and a half it took Heather to deal with the police.
Moreover, Virginia has no law against leaving a child alone in a vehicle. The officer had to come up with something to actually arrest Heather for. Lenore Skenazy from Free-Range Kids, who has seen dozens of these cases and become something of an expert on the horrible chaos they cause, was confused. “I think it’s usually ‘neglect.’ How anyone could say ‘delinquency,’ I don’t even understand. Did she leave the kid with a deck of cards and some poker chips? Or a knife for backseat mumblypeg? Or a stripper?”
There could be a reason for the vagueness of the charges. In 2002 and 2011, children in Prince William County died after they were left in hot cars for several hours. In the 2011 case, Karen Murphy was charged with felony murder and child neglect after her toddler son Ryan died when he was left in a hot minivan for seven hours. She pled guilty to two misdemeanors. These two cases could be why Prince Williams County officers are so sensitive to children left alone in vehicles, no matter how long.
You may think Heather made a poor decision in leaving her daughter for three minutes (again — documented by security footage) to get a donut at Wawa. You may think that children should never be left in cars, no matter what the circumstances. But as Heather said, “As a new mom, I’m already trying to be perfect, and now the state is telling me I’m a bad mom.” A bad mom wouldn’t have made sure her baby was locked up and safe. A bad mom wouldn’t have assured that her baby was warm and comfy. A bad mom wouldn’t have kept the car in view the whole time she was in the store.
You might think it’s not okay to leave a kid in a car, ever. That’s fine. But you shouldn’t think that doing it for three minutes makes someone a bad mom. And you shouldn’t think that it merits arrest, a criminal investigation, a CPS investigation, and a looming trial with possible jail time. Skenazy says, “Truly Good Samaritans don’t turn in parents and hope that they spend months dealing with the cops and CPS and fines and courts. A truly Good Samaritan stands by the car and makes sure the parents come back in a few minutes.”
On the other hand, as Skenazy notes, “I am appalled that our country has become so hysterical that a mom could be arrested for letting her child wait in the car for three minutes. If humans died because they were in an unmoving car for three minutes, we’d all be dead the first time we had to wait for a freight train to pass.”
Heather goes to trial in July, after which she hopes to move on with her life, and head to California to be near her family.