WOOTEN COLUMN: When should parental fallibility become criminal culpability?
BY FRANK WOOTEN
A husband and wife arrive in separate cars at a pub.
They enjoy an April Sunday lunch there with their three kids and assorted friends.
As dad and mom leave, they wrongly assume that their 8-year-old daughter is going home in the other spouse's vehicle. The little girl spends 15 minutes or so without her parents in that drinking (and dining) establishment before the properly chagrined father returns to get her.
Criminal child neglect?
The dad and mom were British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha.
After the story of their staggering inattention to child-caring detail broke a week ago today, the mortified dad's spokesman explained: “Thankfully when they phoned the pub she was there safe and well. The prime minister went down straight away to get her.”
And the British media went straight away to pointing out that Mr. Cameron recently championed free child-rearing classes — including text and email primers — to parents of children up to age 5. He told the BBC: “It is in our interest as a society to help people bring up their children.”
That touchy-feely notion comes from Britain's first Conservative Party prime minister in this century. And if he knows so much about parenting, why did he and his wife abandon their 8-year-old in a pub when they left for the prime minister's official country home in Chequers?
Oh well, no harm done — except to the Camerons' reputation as responsible parents.
Unfortunately, another April case of child neglect ended in tragedy much closer to our homes:
While a wife was taking one of her children to the doctor, her husband took a nap, leaving their 2-month-old baby in a bouncy swing in another room. A dog the couple had recently adopted attacked and killed the infant.
That Ridgeville father, Quintin McGrew, was subsequently charged with unlawful conduct toward a child and is out on bail. But as our newspaper reported Friday, he and wife Chantel got their other two children back Thursday when a Dorchester County judge signed an order restoring custody to them. Those kids had been staying with their maternal grandmother after the court ordered them out of their mobile home,
OK, so those stories are very different in many ways. However, both of them are driven by adult failure to assure child safety.
So why, when and how does such parental ineptitude rise to the level of a crime?
Consider another case:
A mother's 3-year-old son suffers a broken collarbone when she gets in a wreck. He wasn't in a car seat. He wasn't even wearing a seat belt. He was unrestrained in the back seat.
Yet his mother wasn't charged with child neglect. That's because that accident happened 55 years ago.
And don't dare accuse my late, great mom (the driver in that case) of not taking good care of me (the little guy who got hurt in that case).
Times change. So do legal judgments of what constitutes criminal neglect of a child.
Sure, Mr. McGrew shouldn't have left his baby alone in that room with that dog. Judging from some other awful stories about dogs attacking babies in those bouncy swings (including a deadly incident in Ohio last month), pertinent parenting advice should include a warning about those devices.
But does that make Mr. McGrew a criminal?
Is failing to feed your kids in a healthy manner in this era of soaring child obesity also child neglect? How about letting your kids ride bikes without helmets or failing to make them do their homework?
Beyond society's shifting expectations of — and legal demands on — moms and dads, this parenting reality endures:
If you've had kids of your own, you've also likely made some stupid mistakes that put them at needless risk.
You also likely know that overly protecting children can put them at long-term peril, too.
So on this Father's Day, good luck to not just dads but moms as they seek the best balance between shielding their kids from danger and allowing them the freedoms they need to thrive.
But please, if you must take your 8-year-old into a pub, remember to also take her — or him — out with you when you leave.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.