Editorial: Protecting children

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 11, 2006

When a child is hurt or killed through an adult’s negligent or criminal activity, the law provides for felony charges and severe sentences upon conviction.

That’s why a Jamestown man, Ross Edward Neese, who police say was driving while impaired by alcohol, faces several felony charges after his SUV plowed into other vehicles on U.S. 29 in China Grove, killing an 8-year-old girl and injuring three other people. While the catastrophic consequences of the driver’s actions may have been accidental, the law still recognizes a high degree of culpability.

Child-safety advocates think the same should hold true when children are seriously but unintentionally endangered through an adult’s actions. The N.C. Child Fatality Task Force will ask the legislature to create a felony in criminal law for adults who place children in dangerous situations without inflicting intentional injuries. For instance, the law would apply to a methamphetamine maker who exposes youngsters to the toxic residues of this illegal drug activity or to someone who intentionally leaves a child locked in a hot car on a summer day while running errands. Supporters of the law say existing child abuse and neglect laws often don’t adequately address the situation or result in misdemeanors with penalties that are simply too inconsequential to act as a deterrent.

It’s hard to argue for any lenience toward drug pushers who expose children to toxic residues that can have dire, longterm health effects. The same could be said for parents who willfully expose their children to heat stroke or suffocation by leaving them locked or restrained inside a car on a mid-summer day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. They’re abusing their children just as surely as someone who hands a toddler a loaded gun, and the state should close legal loopholes that make it hard for law-enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges to administer the punishment they deserve.

But what about cases where the endangerment occurs because the parent was forgetful or honestly didn’t realize the risk involved? Common sense says there’s a distinction between a parent who forgets the baby asleep in the back seat and the parent who knows the baby’s there but carelessly leaves it unattended. Similarly, common sense says there’s a distinction between a parent who drives drunk with children in the car, and one who exceeds the speed limit while shuttling the kids to ballet practice. Justice may be blind, but it also has to be open-eyed about degrees of guilt and mitigating factors.

As child advocates and legislators consider changes to the state’s child-endangerment laws, the safety and well-being of youngsters should be their paramount concern. But in protecting children from willful carelessness or negligence, the law also needs to acknowledge that parents are human and make mistakes — sometimes with tragic consequences.