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Sunday, July 6, 2003

Hot cars: Leaving kids unattended


Keep law flexible

Ohio state Rep. Jim Hughes of Columbus introduced a proposal Tuesday to make it a felony to leave children under seven unattended in a car in extremely hot weather - no matter the circumstances.

The Republican wants to see a statute specifically addressing the dangers of this sort of neglect. Parents who leave small children in overheated cars now are prosecuted under existing child endangerment laws, which Hughes says is too vague.

We disagree. Hughes' desire to stop these terrible hot-weather tragedies is honorable. He is perhaps even right to say we should deal more harshly with parents who seriously injure their children through neglect.

But this bill has a major flaw: It makes all incidents of this sort a felony. Such a heavy-handed law ignores specific circumstances.

For example, there's a harried parent who leaves a child unattended in a locked car for a moment to pick up a carryout meal or drop off a library book. She deserves different consideration from the Texas woman who got a new hairdo while her child died. The existing child endangerment law accounts for those differences.

According to a spokesman with the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office, it is considered child endangerment any time someone creates a serious risk to a child's well being. It's usually a misdemeanor. However, if a child is seriously injured as a result of that neglect - or the suspect has prior convictions on the crime - it becomes a felony.

It's a worthy goal to raise awareness of the dangers inherent in locking children in cars on hot days. The estimated 175 deaths since 1996 caused by this sort of negligence could have been prevented if parents were more alert to the dangers.

But Hughes' law could impose severe punishment for lesser infractions. Existing law should be rigorously enforced against the worst offenders, but discretion of the court should be preserved..




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