A mother in Omaha paid a price for calling 911 this week. On Tuesday, a gust of wind blew the door of her SUV shut, locking her toddler inside.
According to the mother, her daughter had been at a pool with her aunt. When they arrived back at their home near 36th Street and Olin Avenue about 3 p.m., the aunt turned off the SUV and put her keys inside the car. The girl was in a child seat in the back of the vehicle.
‘When she exited from the car and opened the rear door, the wind pushed the doors closed and locked them,’ an officer wrote of the account from the girl’s mother in the report.
The girl’s mother said they tried to free the almost-two-year-old from the hot car using several tools for about 15 minutes and called a roadside assistance service, which said it would take another 30 minutes to arrive. They then called police, who arrived on the scene, broke the car’s window to free the girl, and ticketed the mother for suspected child abuse by neglect.
Wait, what? Yes.
The police department is defending itself in press and on social media against charges it overreacted. The temperature was in the 90s, and officers measured the temperature in the car at 97 degrees after the window was broken, according to the Omaha World-Herald. The toddler was taken to a local hospital, but was fine.
A police spokesperson had this to say: “We make decisions in the moment with all the information we have available. This can be a super dangerous situation. People die in these circumstances.”
It can be a dangerous situation. Cars heat up quickly on a hot day, sometimes beyond what a small child’s body can take. In the most tragic situations, small children are forgotten in cars and die.
But this child was not forgotten. Her relatives were trying to free her from the car and called the police for help doing that. They were in the very act of not neglecting her. The mother had a perfectly reasonable explanation for how it happened, corroborated by weather reports from the day showing wind gusts of 40 mph, and the child was unhurt.
Can’t we just leave it at that? Can’t we give parents in a scary moment even 20 minutes of grace? Like police, she was also making a decision in the moment.
That’s what this amounts to. Some will say the only correct response is to bash in the car window seconds after the child has gotten locked. Some will say they’d call 911 immediately. I’m in the camp that would likely try a few options before resorting to property damage and police, at least in part because I’m not really keen on breaking glass with force in the direction of my children.
But this is a difference of opinion and approach, not a criminal matter. Parenting is an endless stream of everyday judgment calls made in the moment. Parenting in public feels increasingly perilous when one’s fellow citizens seem more and more likely to report them to authorities if they disagree with one, and authorities seem more and more likely to punish people for common accidents.
Making every call with the worst-case scenario in mind is not a healthy way to parent or police, and our society does far too much of it in both realms. The “last resort” is called that because there are other resorts that should come before it. Let’s not dispense with them.
I am now less keen on calling the police in a similar situation, which is not what any of us should want. The mother involved now has a case being referred to local prosecutors, who will decide whether they should file charges. One hopes common sense will prevail at that stage of the process, but it should have prevailed at the scene.
The police spokesperson added, “Don’t be afraid to call 911 for help.” Tell that to the woman being charged for the wind’s actions.