New Illinois law targets parents who leave kids unattended in car

Charge carries penalty of year in jail, $2,500 fine

January 11, 2002|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Donna Spinozza of Gurnee, Ill., admits to occasionally leaving her three youngsters buckled in their car seats while she runs into a bagel shop.

She would never leave them in the minivan for more than a few minutes, she says, and she's certainly not the only well-intentioned parent who is reluctant to unload sleeping babies and haul them into the cold during a quick errand.

The key is she always keeps a nervous eye on the kids through the store window, she says.

Under a new Illinois law, parents who leave their children unattended and out of their view can face child endangerment charges that carry a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The law applies to children 6 and younger who are left inside a car for 10 minutes or more - whether the engine is running or not - without someone at least 14 being with them or within eyesight.

The law will make it easier to prosecute cases because it includes specific language about children left unattended in vehicles, officials said. Before the law, prosecutors turned to a broader child endangerment statute that did not address children left in vehicles, their ages or time limits.

"It makes it easier to prove a person willfully endangered a child by leaving them in a vehicle," said Dan Anders, spokesman for the Illinois attorney general's office.

The penalties will remain the same as a misdemeanor conviction under the old law. But if a child dies after being left unattended, that's a felony, which carries a 2- to 10-year prison term and a $25,000 fine.

Parents interviewed yesterday largely agreed with the law - 10 minutes is a long time to leave a child alone, they said. But the penalties seemed a bit severe to some.

"That's a pretty big fine," said Kathleen Jacobson, 37, of Wauconda. "I think there are worse things people do than that. I don't think people do it to be abusive. What if you stop to get a prescription and the child is sick?"

Officials say that leaving a child alone in a car, for any amount of time, poses many risks. Toddlers who are unrestrained can shift a running car into gear or get out of the vehicle; carjackers may steal the vehicle while the child remains inside; children may die from suffocation or extreme weather.

State Sen. John Cullerton proposed the bill at the urging of Michele Struttmann, 32, of Washington, Mo., who has pushed nationally for such legislation since her 2-year-old son was struck and killed by a van that was put into gear by two unattended toddlers.

"Unfortunately, I know firsthand how deadly leaving children in an unattended car can be," said Struttmann, who urges parents to find ways to avoid leaving their children alone in cars for even a few seconds.

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