Can children be left in the car unattended?

After a long day of activities and running errands, trying to get multiple tired or even sleeping children up and out of a car can turn a quick stop at the post office into a major ordeal. If you have been in a situation like that, you have probably considered avoiding that hassle.

“The weather is pleasant, the neighborhood is safe, there is a (mostly) responsible, slightly older sibling present, and I’ll just be a minute or two.”

Is that illegal?

Of course, the answer all depends on the circumstances. While we cannot tell you what is the wisest thing to do in every situation, we can inform you what the laws in your state require you not to do and provide some guidance to help you make an informed decision.

The laws on this subject vary widely, but there are generally a few key takeaways from the state statutes: 

  • A parent who leaves a child who is twelve (12) or older alone in a vehicle is generally not considered to be leaving them unattended. The majority of state laws require supervision of children six (6) years old or younger.
  • The minimum age required for a supervising minor mostly ranges from twelve (12) to fourteen (14) years old.
  • Penalties vary widely by state.
  • Of course, there are exceptions to these rules.

Also, keep in mind that cities and other municipalities may have even more restrictive laws. 

What If My State Does Not Have a Law on This Issue?

Although many states have specific laws that regulate when and how you can leave your children in the car, many others do not. This does not mean that the absence of a state law makes it legal to leave your child alone in the car. There are several situations which can make it even more complicated than if there were a statewide law.

First, in states that do not have a statewide law, some individual cities or other municipalities do. These local laws can sometimes be more restrictive, even in states that already have a general law. Be sure to look up your county and city codes, especially if you are not governed by a statewide law.

Second, if there is no specific state or local law about leaving a child in a vehicle, it is likely that a general child neglect, abandonment, or endangerment law could apply. These laws generally make it a crime to negligently or intentionally leave a child in a situation which results in harm or risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare. 

In several states, parents have been charged under these more vague laws for leaving their children unattended in a vehicle. Caselaw from these states often looks to potential risk or resulting harm when determining a conviction or finding of neglect.

Considering the Risks

If the situation is safe and leaving your child alone in a vehicle is not a crime or considered neglect under any definition in your area, we still recommend exercising caution. Remember that anyone who sees your child alone in the car could still report it, potentially inciting a CPS investigation.

Keep in mind that most state statutes dealing with children unattended in a motor vehicle also allow police to intervene. The laws often authorize or even require officers to extract the child from the vehicle, hold the child while trying to find the parent, and even take the child into temporary protective custody if the parent does not quickly reappear. 

Although you may assert that you have the right to leave your children in the car when the situation is safe, others may still feel legally obligated to report you. Even people who are not mandatory reporters may freely report you to CPS. This happens regularly, and we have represented several member families in investigations sparked by reports like these. While all of these investigations were closed successfully, they were still very trying for the families who experienced them.

A hard-and-fast rule to follow would be ideal, but varied and vague laws with differing enforcements make that elusive. Instead, parents must make a judgment call in each situation based on different facts and circumstances such as the safety of the conditions and the maturity of their children. As you make those decisions for your own family, in addition to learning your state and local laws, please carefully weigh the benefits of saving time and avoiding inconvenience with all the potential risks.

If you are a member of Heritage Defense and still have questions after reviewing our Law & Policy page about Children in Cars Unattended, please contact our office to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.

If you are a Christian homeschooling family but are not yet a member of Heritage Defense, learn more about joining today!

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