When Parents Cross the Law

Parents struggle daily making decisions to ensure the safety of our children while balancing their autonomy as they grow. Often times, we are unsure how old kids should be allowed certain freedoms and when is it breaking the law. I caught up with Chief Angel Bernal of the Mill Valley Police Department to learn more about California law, parenting and protecting our kids.

Headlines like "Working Mom Arrested for Letting Her 9-Year-Old Play Alone at Park” in South Carolina or "Parents Who Let Kids Walk Home Alone Face Inquiry” in Maryland are being investigated for negligence made me wonder how young is too young to give your child independence to walk alone and when is it considered endangering a child?

There's no law in California regarding the age a kid can walk alone to a playground or school. For us, if there was a kid playing in the park while the parent was at work, we wouldn't make an arrest unless the kid was in duress or if the responding officer determined the child was not in a safe place. This could be a mental health issues or maturity level that caused the officer to conclude this kid shouldn’t be there by themselves. A reasonable officer should respond and make a rational decision on a case by case basis.

A mom of in Virginia arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of her minor children” after bringing her kids to school late five times. 

That sounds over the top but there could be other factors involved. For instance, if the kids are coming to school disheveled with no lunch or the kids reveal something unsafe in their home. I can see the school taking action regarding truancy but this is not a law enforcement issue.

There was a scene in the movie E.T. when the mom left her five-year-old home alone. I watched this with a group at the library and heard gasps from the parents. What age is it legal to leave kids at home alone?

Somewhere between 10-12 would be reasonable to start leaving children unattended at home for brief periods of time.  Parents must feel comfortable that children know about the dangers associated with appliances, like the stove, washing machines, etc. and not to play with those items. Children should also be responsible enough not to play with matches, household cleaning products or other products that include chemicals, if left unattended. They should be able to dial 911 in an emergency and have a good support system. Talk to your neighbors or a friend and let them know when you are out.

What's the law on leaving kids or dogs in the car? 

On a nice day the temperature inside a car can be over 20 degrees more if the windows are rolled up. So if it’s 80 degrees outside it might get to 100 degrees in the car. Dogs can be left in a car if windows are sufficiently rolled down and they can get air. You can be arrested or fined for animal endangerment if a dog doesn't have plenty of air and I suggest leaving a bowl of water. 

You don’t leave a baby in the car ever. If I can speak as a parent for a moment, I would not feel comfortable leaving a child in a car unless they had the cognitive ability to keep from putting the car in motion, being enticed out of the car by a stranger, or responding to an emergency in or around the car (even if it is to just get to safety) while I was away from the car. My children were probably close to nine years old before I let them stay in the car alone for more than a few minutes while unattended.

How about leaving a sleeping one-year-old in the car with her ten-year-old sibling? A mom in Maryland was cited with a misdemeanor and six months’ probation because of this.

According to code CVC 15620, any person responsible for a child who is six years of age or younger may not leave that child inside a motor vehicle without being subject to the supervision of a person who is twelve years of age or older.

What steps do the police take if you see a kid walking around at night?

Our attention is focused on them because younger people out at night are more susceptible of being victims of crimes. If the person was 17, we might be slightly concerned, but, if they are twelve, we’d be extremely concerned. There's no reason a child that young should be out late at night and we will stop and hang on to them to make sure their parents know where they are. Sometimes the parents have a reasonable explanation or the kid may have snuck out of the house.

Printing naked baby pictures or posting on the internet or social media is common but when is this considered illegal? A Utah couple was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor when they had post-bath-time photos developed at a store and a similar ordeal happened in Arizona.

The line gets drawn when the photos are posted to cause arousal to someone else. If you have something suggestive it rises to a different level.

I was in San Francisco and noticed signs at the playground stating “No Adults Allowed Unless Accompanied By Children CPC 653G.” Is this legal?

Penal Code 653G does not exist any longer but I don’t know if that’s legal if it’s a public place and not a private club. I suggest that anyone concerned about a person in close proximity to children or others who is acting strange or erratic call police so that we can investigate and determine if a law has been broken or if the person is in need of assistance.

Is it legal for single men to take pictures of kids with out parental consent in a public place like a playground?

Yes, if you are both in a public place it’s allowed. You may not take photographs of people on private property, for instance, a neighbor looking into your yard.

If you are at a public event and snap pictures of a crowd with kids, can you publish them on your website or social media without the parents permission?

Yes, as long as it is a public place it is legal. For instance, if you attended the Giants Victory Parade and took pictures you can legally post them. Parents are protective of their children but if they are in a public it is legal unless they feel they are being abused or accosted.

Final Thoughts.

Bear in mind that sometimes what you read in the paper is not the whole incident. The news may give you a snippet or just one side of the incident. Fortunately, we live in a safe community however bad things can happen in good places. We should always be prepared but not paranoid and when in doubt, call the police.