Most are unaware leaving a child in car is illegal

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The details vary, but the circumstances are generally the same when parents explain to Joni Feldman why they left their children alone in the car.

They were gone for only a few minutes, enough time to grab a carton of milk from the grocery store, use the bathroom or pick up another child from school or day care, said Ms. Feldman, the supervisor of prevention services for Family Resources, a child and family advocacy organization based in East Liberty.

"They usually say it was only a minute or two, but there will be a police report that will be a longer time," she said.

Parents nearly always say they didn't realize it was a crime to leave a young child alone in a vehicle, even for a short period of time, Ms. Feldman said.

But in Pennsylvania and 14 other states, it is.

Today, a Mt. Lebanon man will have a preliminary hearing before District Judge Blaise Larotonda after he was charged last month with one count of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

Mt. Lebanon police said David Schraven, 44, left his 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son alone in his car in the Virginia Manor Shopping Center parking lot on Aug. 25 while he shopped at Giant Eagle.

A bystander spotted the children alone in the car and called police. When police arrived, a door was ajar and the 5-year-old was standing in the parking lot.

Mr. Schraven returned to the car with a shopping cart and told police he had been gone for 10 minutes. A witness said the children had been alone for 25 minutes. Neither child was harmed.

Mr. Schraven told police he left his children in the car because they were eating ice cream. He was charged via summons, and earlier this month he was suspended from his part-time job as the Mt. Lebanon high school swim coach.

Most people are not aware that leaving young children in the car, even for a brief period, is subject to law enforcement scrutiny, said Bruce Noel, the intake manager for Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families.

But he said it's a law, similar to rules mandating seat belts and car seats, that is designed to make cars safer for children.

Since 1991, Pennsylvania motor vehicle code has declared it a summary offense, usually punishable by a fine, to leave a child under 6 in a motor vehicle out of a person's sight and under circumstances that endanger the health, safety or welfare of the child.

According to advocacy site, 14 other states have laws similar to Pennsylvania's, and Missouri and Kentucky have laws that apply only to fatalities resulting from children left unattended in cars.

Unlike in Texas, where children younger than 7 may not be left alone in a car for more than 5 minutes, or Illinois, where children 6 and younger may not be left alone for more than 10 minutes, there is no time element in the Pennsylvania law. There is also nothing in the law regarding supervision by older children.

Instead, the decision to charge a parent or guardian is left up to the discretion of the police officer.

In Mt. Lebanon, the charge of leaving a child unattended in a car is rarely filed, police spokesman Lt. Aaron Lauth said.

But the alleged length of time and the fact that one of the children had left the vehicle prompted the officer to file the charges in Mr. Schraven's case, Lt. Lauth said.

Charges regarding parents leaving children in cars may be filed less frequently than other motor vehicle violations, but Barbara A. Gaines, the director of trauma and injury prevention at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, said parents leaving their children in cars is hardly a rare occurrence.

"I think that this probably happens a lot. And I think every one of us has left a child briefly when they run in to do something else," she said.

"You think you're only going to be gone for a few minutes, but all of a sudden you are gone for a lot longer."

A lot can happen in just a few minutes, and Dr. Gaines warned parents against leaving young children in cars, for any period of time.

"Just as you wouldn't leave a child unattended somewhere else, the idea that they are safe because they are in the car is probably a false sense of security, and there are a number of ways that children can be injured while they are alone in a car," she said.

Children can quickly become overheated in a closed car and in severe cases have died or become very ill from heat stroke. Children can also disengage the emergency parking break and cause the car to move, or they can get a body part stuck in a power window or a seat belt.

Even so, those events are rare.

"Fortunately, the vast majority of us survive our childhood, but my job is to try to make sure that even rare events don't happen," Dr. Gaines said.

Yet busy lives can create tough situations for many parents, Ms. Feldman said. When she meets with people who have left their children unattended in a car, the parents were often trying to tackle long "to-do" lists, not thinking that leaving a child alone for a few minutes could result in criminal charges.

"They are thinking, 'What do I have to do to get the goal I have accomplished, in the time I have, with the least amount of stress?' " Ms. Feldman said.

Most parents will find themselves, at some point, in a situation where they need to run a quick errand that would be easier without a child in tow.

But parents shouldn't leave young children -- especially infants, toddlers and children under 6 -- alone in a car, she said. Instead, she recommended parents seek out a support system, such as a neighbor, family member or friend who can watch the children or tag along in the car during errands.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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