Lose a kid, pass a law

Posted: Aug 06, 2001 12:00 AM
First the human tragedy, then the push for government to do something in response to it. A baby dies in a parked car during a warm day because his father forgot his child was in the backseat. The public wants a prosecution and a new law. It doesn't seem to matter if the prosecution smacks of piling on or if the proposed new law is likely to punish parents who haven't jeopardized their children's safety. The sad fact is: You can't pass a law against forgetfulness. Last week, Brian Palmer Gilbert, 24, left his 5-month-old son, Kyle, in the family car for two hours as he watched an animated Japanese movie at his in-laws' house. He said he forgot his son was in the car. When he went to his car, he found Kyle unconscious. The baby's core temperature had reached 107 degrees; he later died. The Santa Clara district attorney's office filed felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment against Gilbert. Usually, I've considered it heavy-handed when prosecutors file criminal charges against a parent who has just lost a child and the loss is not due to abusive or habitually neglectful parenting. As Gilbert's attorney, David Wise, noted: "He's going to be punishing himself for the rest of his life. I think it's unfortunate that the D.A.'s office feels the need to pile on top of that." Deputy District Attorney Daniel T. Nishigaya, however, made a compelling argument for some court action. Kyle's life, he said, "has independent significance. He was not simply an extension of his parents. Although we respect and understand that his parents may be suffering, the personal feelings of the defendant or the victim's family cannot be the sole governing principle in a decision to pursue criminal charges." True, a child is not chattel. But if Gilbert's story is essentially accurate, the county should quickly settle on probation, and spare Gilbert and his family both jail time and unnecessary anguish. Nothing the government could impose on Gilbert could match his own suffering. On the legislative front, California state Sen. Jackie Speier is pushing a bill that would impose a $100 fine on parents who leave children under the age of 7 alone in a car. A few problems: First, the bill isn't going to keep parents from leaving children in their cars if the children are in the car because a parent forgot them. If the parents remembered, they'd have taken their children. Second, what happened to Kyle should be more alarming to parents than the prospect of a $100 fine. Third, while safety advocates are right to tell parents to never leave a child in a car unattended, there are times when parents leave their children in a car for, say, a very quick run into a store, without harming their children. Why should those parents be fined because Gilbert left his kid in a car? Janette Fennell of the nonprofit San Francisco advocacy group Kids 'N Cars supports the Speier measure. She argued that, "the law itself becomes an education." Good, then let officers write up warning slips for first offenses. Fennell's best argument is that the ticketing system would give police a third option on top of their current two choices: taking kids away from their parents, or scolding parents and walking away. Would a parent unmoved by a lecture from a cop be moved by a $100 ticket? I doubt it.