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May 03, 2009

Mommy Road Rage: Madlyn Primoff & Child Endangerment - Have We Gone To Far?

-6 Do we really live in such a culture of fear that making your child walk is a crime?

If you haven’t already heard, Madlyn Primoff, a 45 year old partner at the law firm Kaye Scholer,was charged with misdemeanor child endangerment after kicking her squabbling 12 and 10 year old daughters out of the family car and driving off. It appears she acted in a fit of rage after the two girls would not stop bickering. Her 12-year-old ran after the car, caught up and rode the three miles home alone with her mother. Primoff's 10-year-old was left alone, crying until a stranger bought her ice cream and contacted the police.

The story was covered internationally. It has sparked outrage. Primoff has been vilified in the news. Some have used this as evidence that moms cannot work outside the home and juggle being moms. You might not think she is a good parent. I don’t know what transpired in the car. From the outside, it would seem she needs to learn to better manage her frustration and anger. But I think most of us can at least understand the feelings that drove Madlyn Primoff to stop her car and make that usually empty threat of "get out of the car" very real. Fed up with bickering, children crossing the imaginary line and poking one another, or any of the other amazingly annoying things that children can do while you are driving, most of us may well have wanted to stop and force our children out.

But do you really thin she criminally endangered her children under the law?

Under the circumstances as I understand them – leaving her children in a business neighborhood in their upscaled neighborhood - it doesn’t seem like she criminally endangered her children. Walking home in fresh air shouldn't be a crime in our society (especially with the childhood obesity epidemic).

Under New York penal law, a person is guilty of endangering the welfare of a child when:

A person "knowingly acts in a manner likely to be injurious to the physical, mental or moral welfare of a child less than seventeen  years old  or directs or authorizes such child to engage in an occupation involving a substantial risk of danger to his life or health; or being a parent, guardian or other person legally charged with the care or custody of a child less than eighteen years old, he fails or refuses to exercise reasonable diligence in the control of such child to prevent him from becoming an ‘abused  child,’ a ‘neglected  child,’  a ‘juvenile delinquent’ or a ‘person in need of supervision,’ as those terms are defined” under the law.

Is her judgment that it was safe to let her children walk home under the circumstances a crime?

New York does not have a law about how old children must be before they can be left alone. The NY Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) admits no straightforward answer exists since "all children develop at their own rate, and with their own special needs and abilities." The OCFS states that "parents and guardians need to make intelligent, reasoned decisions regarding these matters." Factors to consider are the child's maturity, the child's knowledge and abilities and the circumstances.

And if she is, then where do we draw the line?  How far should we take this?

It is well established that exposure to secondhand smoke causes disease and disability such as cardiovascular disease and lung ailments such as bronchitis and asthma attacks. Long term exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of cancer, and exposure to cancer causing agents in the early yeras of life is more significant by a factor of 10 according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.  Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), secondhand smoke is among "the most common and harmful environmental exposures of children."  Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at increased risk for multiple serious health effects like asthma, respiratory infections, and decreased lung growth and exercise tolerance. If current tobacco use patterns persist, the AAP states that an estimated 6.4 million children will die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.

So, don't parents that smoke in the home "knowingly" act in a manner likelyto be injurious to the physical welfare of their children? And shouldn't they then be subject to criminal charges as well?

Do you feed your kids tuna sandwiches? An American staple of a tunafish sandwich exposes your children to methylmercury.  Methylmercury impairs neurological development. A 22 pound toddler eating only 2 ounces of tuna per week with a 0.5 ppm mercury concentration would have an intake over 4 times the EPA's reference dose. US Food and Drug Administration's testing of canned Albacore tuna found an average level of 0.35 ppm with a maximum concentration of 0.85 ppm. Independent testing found that average Albacore tuna levels were actually higher than reported by FDA, around 0.58 ppm mercury. Should parents who feed their children Albacore tuna be charged with child endangerment?

What about exposing kids to lead, a potent neurotoxin particularly harmful to kids under 5 years of age.  Lead levels in the home are most closely associated with the age of the home and the dust levels in the home. Many homes built before 1978 have lead based paint, and, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development, approximately 24 million homes in the United States have peeling or chipping lead-based paint or high levels of lead in dust. If you expose your kids to this, are you a criminal? If you fail to wet wipe regularly and vacuum with a HEPA equipped vacuum to reduce lead exposure, should you be charged?

As parents, we make judgments about what is safe for our children all the time. We may choose to let them play football, although approximately 185,700 children ages 5 to 14 are treated in hospital emergency rooms for football-related injuries every year.  In fact, according to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign and the AAP, more than 3.5 million children ages 14 and under get hurt annually playing sports or participating in recreational activities. But it isn’t a crime to let your child engage in sports or recreational activities, despite the risk of physical injury.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that a child needs to be burned to learn that fire shouldn't be touched.  And I’m all for using safety equipment, mandating car seats, and the like. But have we gone too far?

I know as a child that I roller skated, without a helmet, each day from school to dance class, and returned home to an empty house at the age of 10 farther than Madlyn Primoff’s daughters were going to walk.

Have times changed that much? 

They have, but not the way you think. Violent crime is down since I was 10.  And that sense that children are routinely abducted isn’t based on fact. According to the US Department of Justice's National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART – 2), there are only 33,000 non-family related abductions a year. Plus, NISMART researchers note that law enforcement statistics only count as "stereotypical kidnapping" those children abducted overnight or subject to more serious threats. If this definition is used, there were only 115 kidnappings in the year of the study. What does this mean? Getting hit by lightning is more common.

We seem to think that our children should be kept safe from all of life's potential harms, and the safety industry is booming based upon our fears. We are good parents only if we protect our children against germs, strangers, and accidents. Even gravity may be too much for our children to understand, if you believe ThudGuard, promoting an infant protective safety hat to learn to walk in "a world of hard surfaces."

But how will our children learn if we protect them from every potential danger? How can they grow up to embody the American ideals of persistence, patience and independence if we don't let them learn from mistakes, pick themselves up from mishaps, or keep trying until they get something right? Yes, we must be responsible parents, but we have different standards and we have different children, with different abilities and needs. We need to guide them to the experiences to master their worlds. 

Do we do them more harm by cocooning them in protective bubbles?

This is an original LA Moms Blog post by Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama. Jennifer blogs about reducing toxic chemicals in your child's environment at TheSmartMama. Which she staunchly advocates, but doesn't think a parent should be thrown in jail for failing to feed her child organic food.

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