We’ve all heard about children dying in hot cars after parents left them unattended. The cases usually receive national attention. Understandably so. Anything involving a child’s death is terribly tragic and sad.
Is it child abuse when a parent leaves a child unattended in a car?
The short answer: Not on the surface.
Colorado has no specific statute prohibiting parents from leaving their child unattended, in a car, home, or anywhere else. The state must, thus, evaluate each case individually to determine if child abuse exists.
Colorado Child Abuse Laws
In Colorado, CRS 18-6-401, in basic terms, states that a parent commits child abuse when they place their child in a situation that jeopardizes the child’s life or engage in a pattern of behavior that seriously injures or kills the child.
When the state considers whether to prosecute a parent for such a situation, prosecutors consider factors such as the child’s age and the child’s injuries. The state also examines a parent’s actions or intent, using terms such as “knowingly” and “recklessly.”
Penalties for Colorado Child Abuse Convictions
Colorado then organizes sentences and punishments as follows:
- First-Degree Murder: life sentence or the death penalty
- Class 2 Felony Charges: 8-24 years in prison plus fines up to $1,000,000
- Conviction of a Class 3 Felony: a 4-16-year prison sentence and $750,000 max fine
- Class 4 Felony Conviction: 2-8 years in prison plus up to $500,000 in fines
- Class 5 Felony Charges: 1-5 years in prison and a fine of $1,000-$100,000
- Misdemeanors: 3-18 months in jail and a fine of $250-$1,000
Prosecuting Parents in Colorado
Colorado and other states have prosecuted parents for leaving their children unattended in their cars and causing their deaths. Scientists and experts don’t generally believe parents are actual criminals.
Rather than punish parents, they want to find ways to prevent these tragedies. Parents actually handle public humiliation and criminal consequences better than the lifetime of personal grief and self-loathing.
How Do Parents Leave Their Children Unattended in a Car?
The parents in mostly all of the cases maintain that they forgot that their child was in the car. How is that possible? Experts theorize that, because much of what we do every day is routine, our brains function automatically.
Our brains go into “autopilot.” Exhaustion, stress, or even a simple change in our routine can create false memories. These tragedies most often occur when a parent changes something, such as stopping at a different coffee shop or switching daycare drop-off duties with their spouse.
What Happens Inside the Car When a Colorado Child is Left Unattended?
Simple enough, the temperature inside a car rises quickly. Even in the shade and in relatively mild temperatures, the inside of a car can increase up to nineteen degrees in ten minutes and up to fifty degrees in one hour.
A child’s temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s, making them especially vulnerable to heatstroke.
When their temperature reaches around 104 degrees, their brain, cells, and body proteins malfunction; their muscles and blood vessels breakdown and impair circulation; their internal organs shut down; and, then they die.
This can all take place within minutes.
Colorado Parents: Suggestions for Prevention
How quickly your child’s life may be put on the line when left attended inside a vehicle makes prevention a necessary tool. Experts advise several ways to help ensure you encourage yourself to always check on your child.
Here are some of them:
- Place your purse, briefcase, cell phone or something for which you will always take with you in the backseat
- Place a toy on the dashboard or front seat to remind you that your child is with you
- Place the car seat in the center of the backseat, so that you always see them.
- Say “look before you lock” repeatedly to yourself.
If you’re facing charges for accidentally leaving your child unattended in your car, the most important thing for you to do is consult an experienced Colorado child abuse attorney for guidance.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.