Penalizing Parents In Tragic Cases: Justice or Excess?

A thoughtful look at whether or not parents should be prosecuted criminally after losing a child to accidental causes.
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said "There's no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were." The former president knew of what he spoke, having lost his firstborn son to scarlet fever at the tender age of four. It is hard to imagine anything more devastating than the death of a child, and heartbreaking enough to lose a child when you can say in your heart that you have done everything in your power to keep your child from harm. But what if you didn't? Worse, what if your actions were directly responsible for the death of your child?

I am not speaking of cases of deliberate, malicious abuse or horrific cases of neglect. In those cases, the parent has absolutely no interest in the health or well-being of the child in question. Rather, I refer to those sad instances where years of sufficient caring and nurturing (or in the saddest of cases, mere months) are wiped out in a single moment of inattention, carelessness, or even denial.

Every summer, it seems, when the heat of a summer's day turns lethal, we see cases appear in the news: In Fort Smith, Arkansas just this week, two parents are being charged with negligent homicide in the death of their twenty-two-month-old child, who was left in a locked vehicle and died from the heat. Each thought the other had gotten the child out of the car. In Arlington, Texas, the parents of a two-year-old, who had wandered out of religious services at a mosque and climbed back into their unlocked vehicle, later dying from the heat, may be charged with child endangerment.

It's not only about leaving vulnerable children to die in overheated cars that makes the headlines, either. Several weeks ago, Zachary King Sr. lost his seven-year-old son when the child was mauled to death by one of the family's pit bulls. King is facing charges of second-degree manslaughter in connection with his son's death. And what about the case of Edie Bolanos, whose tragic decision to try to beat two trains past a railroad crossing in Hammond, Indiana, took the lives of not only her children, but her own life as well? Had the accident not resulted in Ms. Bolanos' own death, would she be facing criminal charges as well in connection with the deaths of her daughters?

With the exception of Ms. Bolanos' case, the other incidents all share one common feature, in that they have resulted in the parents of these children facing criminal charges in the deaths of their children. One must ask at this point, what purpose does it serve to prosecute these parents on criminal charges?

The deaths of these children were so tragic, so needless, it makes any rational person want to pursue some sort of action, any action, that might prevent such a thing from ever happening again, but the sad truth is, these prosecutions will not accomplish anything of the sort. If you leave your child in a closed car on a blistering hot day, is it criminality at play, or ignorance of the consequences? If your child wanders off while you're otherwise occupied and climbs into your oven of a car, is that an intentional act of malice? How many parents have turned around and felt their hearts leap into their throats when they realize their errant toddlers have wandered off again? Is that criminal behavior?

Is there a difference between those cases and the cases of Zachary King and his son or Edie Bolanos and her daughters? Some would like to argue that there is. In King's case, the dog in question had already bitten two adults, one of who was awarded a sizable lawsuit for his injuries, yet the dog was not removed from the family home until after his son was killed by it. Was that criminal behavior on the part of Mr. King, or was it denial? Was it an act of malice aforethought, or was it ignorance of the proper care and handling of aggressive dog breeds? (the pit bull in question had been chained up in the basement.) As for Ms. Bolanos, who can know what was in her mind or in her heart in those few final moments. But before judging her motives, how many people out there race through a yellow light just turning red, or drive around railroad crossing bars, or try and speed across the tracks at the last moment? "I can't miss/be late for this doctor's appointment, class, activity, etc." In the words of one of Ms. Bolanos' friends, "She made a terrible mistake".

Terrible mistakes, all of these, but are they criminal acts? Remember Eisenhower's words: "There's no tragedy in life like the death of a child." What could the prosecutors do to these parents, what sentence could they possibly impose, that could ever even approximate the terrible penance of guilt, the agony, that these parents are enduring because of their actions? And would a charge, and a conviction, and a sentence change the behavior of others parents? Parents will still be distracted; parents will still be ignorant of basic safety measures; parents will still try to run red lights to get to their destinations more quickly; parents will still own dogs and not train them properly or supervise their children around them adequately. Parents are human, and they make mistakes. Sometimes, they are the gravest mistakes possible, but in their hearts, they have already tried themselves, they have already found themselves guilty, and they will be serving terrible sentences every minute of every day, for the rest of their lives. What more can a prosecutor do to them? Instead of prosecuting them, have these parents participate in a community outreach program, where they share their stories with new parents. Have them serve as an object lesson, have them be the poster children for "what not to do", but have them serve time? What's the purpose?

Sources:;;;;;; Minneapolis Star Tribune
By Julia Tagliere
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