Ethics Quiz: Four Young Children Locked In A Hot Car


Mom and mom advocate Lenore Skenazy writes the Free Range Kids blog, which I have to remember to check out regularly. She is the source of today’s Ethics Quiz, which she obviously believes has an easy answer. We shall see.

Charnae Mosley, 27, was arrested by Atlanta police and charged with four counts of reckless conduct after leaving her four children, aged 6, 4, 2, and 1, inside of her SUV with the windows rolled up and the car locked.  It was 90 degrees in Atlanta that day. The children had been baking there for least 16 minutes while their mother did some shopping. A citizen noticed the children alone in the vehicle and reported the children abandoned.

Skenazy believes that the arrest is excessive—that the mother made a mistake, but that compassion is called for, not prosecution:

“[T]he mom needs to be told that cars heat up quickly and on a hot summer day this can, indeed, be dangerous. She does not need to be hauled off to jail and informed that even if she makes bail, she will not be allowed to have contact with her children…No one is suggesting that it is a good idea to keep kids in a hot, locked car with no a.c. and the windows up. But if that is what the mom did, how about showing some compassion for how hard it is to shop with four young kids, rather than making her life infinitely more difficult and despairing?The kids were fine. They look adorable and well cared for. Rather than criminalizing a bad parenting decision (if that’s what this was), how about telling the mom not to do it again?”

Do you agree with her? Here is your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the day:

Was it cruel, unfair, unsympathetic or unkind for Atlanta police to arrest Mosely for leaving her four young children locked in a hot car?

I am an admirer of Lenore Skenazy, but her pro-mother bias led her seriously astray this time. I think she is applying rationalizations, consequentialism and dubious, indeed dangerous reasoning to let this mother off a hook that she deserves to stay on. In her post, she even suggests that the car’s air conditioning was on, though there is no reason to believe that it was based on the reports. If the A-C was on, that changes the situation: I very much doubt that a mother would be charged with leaving four children in a locked, hot car if the car was not, in fact, hot. (One report states that the SUV windows were open, but that wouldn’t support the charges. If the windows were open, then Mosely left her children alone in public, which is a different form of child endangerment, but still dangerous. For the purpose of the quiz, I am assuming that the windows were shut, and that the air conditioning was not on. So does Skenazy.)

Let’s look at Lenore’s analysis errors:

  • She notes that the children were “fine.” What if they hadn’t been fine? That wouldn’t change what Mosely had done in any way, and what she did was irresponsible, dangerous and potentially deadly. Sixteen minutes, scientists tell us, is more than enough time for temperatures in a closed car to rise sufficiently high to cause heat stroke. Mosely, and obviously her children, were lucky—this is classic moral luck—and that shouldn’t be allowed to diminish the seriousness of what she did. (Aside: I just realized that to find that link, I made the same Google search that Justin Ross Harris made before leaving his infant son to die in his own hot vehicle, which has added to the circumstantial evidence causing him to be charged with murder.)
  •  The rationalizations peeking through Slenazy’s excuses for the mother’s conduct are quite a crowd. Along with #3. Consequentialism, or  “It Worked Out for the Best,” there is #19. The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes,” it’s twin, #20, The “Just one mistake!” Fantasy, #22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things,” #25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice,”  #27. The Victim’s Distortion, #30. The Prospective Repeal: “It’s a bad law/stupid rule,” and #33. The Management Shrug: “Don’t sweat the small stuff!” There are probably some more, but that’s plenty.
  • If Skenazy believes that the “it was just a mistake” explanation should protect the mother from prosecution here, presumably she would make the same argument if all four kids (or just one) died. A lot of prosecutors feel the same way. I don’t.
  • If Mosley did this once, she may well have done it before, and is a risk to do it again. The best way to teach her not to do it again is, at very least, to scare her, inconvenience her, publicly embarrass her, and use the legal system to show how serious her wrongful conduct was, and how seriously society regards it. There is no guarantee that a lecture from a cop wouldn’t have just produced just an eye-rolling “Whatever…my kids were just fine, and I know how to take care of them” reaction, a repeat of the conduct, and eventually, a tragedy….followed, of course, by public accusations that the police were negligent and abandoned four children to the care of a dangerously reckless and incompetent mother.
  • I’m sorry, Lenore, but this-“How about showing some compassion for how hard it is to shop with four young kids, rather than making her life infinitely more difficult and despairing?” —makes me want to scream. How about not having more children that you can take care of safely? How about recognizing that your children’s safety comes first, with no exceptions, ever? How about meeting the minimum level of parenting competence, and not remaining ignorant about conduct that has been well publicized as cruel and potentially fatal to dogs, not to mention young children? In this case, compassion is a zero-sum game: compassion for the mother means showing none for her children.

When ethics fails, the law steps in. Too many children die every year from this tragic mistake that arises from distracted parenting, ignorance, and poorly aligned priorities. Prosecuting parents like this one for non-fatal incidents is exactly how the law serves as a societal tool to increase public awareness and encourage better conduct. It is in the best interests of Mosely’s four children as well as the children of every parent who reads about or hears her story to prosecute her to the full extent of the law.


Pointer and Source: Free Range Kids

Facts: Yahoo!, WSB

23 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Four Young Children Locked In A Hot Car

  1. Was it cruel, unfair, unsympathetic or unkind for Atlanta police to arrest Mosely for leaving her four young children locked in a hot car?

    Answer: Absolutely Not.

    The Mom Advocate’s zealotry enables people to claim ignorance of even the most common knowledge. Would the advocate or the mother feel the same way if the children were locked in a different type of metal container with no ventilation on a hot summer day? Just because it is a car and not a fabricated metal box does not change the expected outcome.

    Here is another question: Is it ethical for an advocacy group to frame their arguments to advance their agenda when it known that it will compromise the health and safety of innocent third parties if they are successful? Again, absolutely not.

  2. She should be arrested — but she should not go to prison. She should have to pay a fine, have a permanent record, and attend mandatory child safety classes. If she is arrested for child endangerment again, she should have to go to prison.

    I’ll also note that as a busy mom, one can do ALL shopping online these days — including groceries. There is no excuse for this. AND, even if it wasn’t a hot day, leaving the kids alone in a car at that age is asking for trouble. What about a child predator? What if a child leaves the car? If the AC was on, that means the car was on, so what if one of the children decide to drive the car? What if a thief sees a car running and just smashes a window and drives off in the car? NO EXCUSE.

    • Thanks Beth. The car running was the first thing I thought of when Jack mentioned the possibility of the A/C running, and with a 6 year-old, I’ll guarantee he/she would try driving it. And I’m sorry to keep using Texas as an example but it’s what I am familiar with. Our Child Protective Services would take the kids, for their own safety, but would prescribe a path for the mother to get them back (parenting classes, rehab if needed, etc.) based on the assumption (not always accurate) that the parent(s) are the best place for the child.

  3. Our court systems do not go far enough with punishment such as this to curtail cruelty.

    Usually our human body can control and regulate its own temperature. However, when the body gets too hot, it reacts by several methods to cool down. Such as sweating. It does not take long being in heat without sufficient liquids; the body’s natural cooling processes fail leading to dehydration and in many cases rapid dehydration.
    Usually the human bodies symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps. It these symptoms are ignored this can worsen into heat stroke, which is life-threatening form of heat illness.



  4. There can be rationalizations, but no valid excuses for what this mother did. I’ve been the mother of four small children, so I know how difficult and overwhelming it can be. There were days that I wanted to throw myself and them over a cliff. And I had a supportive family and great husband.

    I’m making some assumptions that may not be fair, but reflect the reality of far too many lives. This mother may be single, poorly educated and without family support. Her life is, no doubt, challenging and making bad decisions is inevitable. But all those circumstances don’t change the facts. She did a foolish and dangerous thing and jeopardized the lives of her children. The system is not set up to prevent bad decisions, but to intervene when bad things happen. You could make an argument for a different system, but you can’t change the reality of the consequences of bad decisions. I hope not every mother experiences public exposure to the degree this poor mother has, but every mother who makes such foolish decisions should face the consequences of her actions.

    There’s a big difference between understanding why a bad decision is made and letting the person who made the bad decision get away with it or excusing it. Frankly, this has been a huge topic in the news this summer and anyone who still doesn’t understand the dangers of leaving children and pets in hot closed cars is just not paying attention.

  5. I’m kind of torn on this one. But I lean towards Jack’s point of view, and I think I just need to wrap my head around the rationalizations more. I just get put off by the nanny state taking children away from parents. I realize that needlessly endangering children is unethical, and I realize that there are probably rationalization involved in this next statement, but is shuffling the kids into foster care really doing them any favors?

  6. Skenazy’s argument definitely falls flat. In the old days (the 1970s), my own mother didn’t leave me alone in a vehicle when she went shopping. In fact, when she gave birth to my youngest sister, a preemie baby, it was a chore for her to take the baby to the grocery store as she was constantly stopped by admirers telling her how cute the baby was. But, even in those more lenient days, she never left the baby in the car, though it would have been a much faster errand if she had.

    There are three types of people who leave kids in cars. The first are the ones who deliberately do so, rationalizing that they will only be away for a short period of time. These are the same types of people who will also drop their kids off at a fast food restaurant or corner bookstore, expecting the employees to babysit while they go off to do errands or lunch someplace else. Inevitably, when confronted by authorities, store employees or other customers, they will argue that they were only gone for “a few minutes”. I believe these are the majority of the Hot-Vehicle-Offenders and probably include some of the free rangers who make up Skenazy’s target audience. However, I doubt the guilty parties are less in line with Skenazy’s philosophy of creating independent kids as they are just not willing to corral restless children while trying to get the shopping done. I believe that Skenazy would subscribe to the rationalization – “It’s for a good cause” – but, as correctly pointed out in the original entry above, there’s a healthy dose of moral luck attached to it.

    The unfortunate fact is that a parent has no idea for certain how long that trip inside will take. If, like me, they are guaranteed to choose the cash register manned by a new, untrained employee with a customer in front demanding to pay in pennies and expired coupons, a “couple of minutes” turns into a lengthy wait. The intent of this parent is not malicious, but it is borne out of sloth which is poor parenting.

    The second type are those genuinely forget the child is in the car. For the record, I am among those who believe it is possible for a parent to accidentally leave a child in the car. I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I do allow that it can happen. People tend to be creatures of habit. A new parent, tired, rushed, not used to having a baby in a vehicle, a miscommunication with the other parent about who is supposed to be doing what that day, could forget that a sleeping or quiet infant is there, Note that this is merely an explanation for the incident, not an excuse.

    The third type is the thankfully-rare parent trying to get rid of the child by deliberately leaving him in the car for an extended period of time. Criminal penalties are essential here, for obvious reasons.

    However, the first two types will garner sympathy because, should the poor child die, yes, such a parent would be inconsolable and his or her guilt would certainly be punishing. However, given the Justin Harrises of the world exist, should there be no criminal penalty for those harried, but unintentionally negligent parents? Or for the ones who are dangerously negligent, but dismiss the risks because of moral luck?

    And Skenazy’s solution is to educate the mother about the dangers of leaving children in hot vehicles! Even if we allow for the idea that Mosley – despite constant media attention given to this issue every single summer – doesn’t know how dangerous this is, where do we set the boundary between a tragic mistake, lazy negligence and deliberate murder?

    In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the car was running, the windows rolled down or the air conditioning on. There are any number of dangers facing unsupervised children besides suffocating while strapped into a car seat. A child can strangle himself trying to get out of restraints, get into the front seat and cause a moving vehicle accident or let himself out of the car and wander unattended through the parking lot. And God forbid a predator should coerce or convince a child to unlock the car door or even reach over an unrolled window and do it himself.

    So, I’ve come to the conclusion that we must have some type of penalty in force for those who leave children alone in cars…even accidentally, even deliberately without malicious intent. (To be honest, I’d like to see that for pets, as well, but the protection for animals is often largely relative to the locale and the legal value placed on them). It seems dispassionate to some, but there must be a clear deterrent that will cause someone to think twice about counting on moral luck to justify that quick run into a grocery store, to say nothing about a murderer cashing in on the compassion and goodwill of the general public by feigning an accident in order to get rid of an unwanted child.

    Sorry for the length, but I’ve been mulling over this issue ever since hearing how Harris went out to his car on break to see if his baby was still alive…sorry, to drop off some lightbulbs.

  7. I believe the police were correct in this situation. I don’t put this in a category of a mistake. And what if, god forbid, one or all of those kids had died? More rationalizations in order to not hold the parent accountable? “Hasn’t this parent suffered enough” really bothers me.

  8. Jack…you may have mentioned this story before. Gene Weingarten (Washington Post) wrote an in-depth story on this subject… Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake but is it a Crime? I believe he won a Pulitzer for this story. I thought it was excellent and well worth the read since we are on this subject.

    • AhA! You didn’t check my link on “I don’t,” did you? It went to my post on Weingarten’s piece, in which a oppose his conclusion. It’s negligent homicide, and “he’s suffered enough” is a rationalization. His suffering isn’t the point.

  9. I agree with your argument, Jack, it’s flawless… but on this one I’m with Lenore on the conclusion that arresting the mother is excessive. Isn’t that a contradiction? Yes, but let me explain, based on personal experience.

    Your assumption – and most people’s – is that after the arrest the mother will be booked, a case will be built, prosecutors will come with a reasonable charge and the judicial system will run its course. We know that is unlikely, but let’s even concede that will occur. Since the incident involved children, CPS (or your state’s equivalent) is now notified. They will show up unannounced, with an attitude that makes the DMV lady look like Mother Teresa and the ability to take away your children at their whim (really, the agent has the authority to take away the children based on her evaluation, and by the time you can appeal, the kids have spent 3 days in a foster home). Legal assistance to deal with the allegations will be expensive and time consuming, and since this is not a criminal case you are not even entitled to a public defender. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is what an innocent family goes through. A guilty mother (again, conceding the reports are truthful) will be lucky to get off without being sent to the electric chair, twice. The government has no sense of proportion, and when kids are involved they don’t even know what the word means.

    So back to the original question: Is it fair to send this woman into a months- or years- long battle with the system, with little to no legal support, probably without seeing her kids or just for a few hours a week and possibly crippling her ability to work due to the legal ramifications and time commitment required? Maybe, in a clear cut case like this. But if she is treated like that, every single suspect of child endangerment should through the same in the interest of impartiality. Do I believe that is fair? Hell NO!

  10. I agree completely – it should not have occurred, she must be punished in some fashion, and Lenore’s argument is specious.

    However, I must admit that I have fond memories of my parents leaving the keys in the ignition and running into the store, leaving me in the car alone or with my younger sister. I was old enough that they trusted me to turn on the air or roll down a window or even open a door should I need to. It felt akin to being left at home alone – mature, trusted, and responsible; not to mention more peaceful than running about the store.

    Granted, I was slightly more than 1 year old at the time. Perhaps 8 or 9.

    • Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the jerk “gurper,” today’s poster boy for a rude, lazy, none-too bright commenter, who is beimg posted for our agreement, edification, amusement and instruction!

      1. The post pointed out the discrepancy in reports about the windows.
      2. I explained why I found the windows down report more credible. If gurper had inside knowledge to resolve this issue, he was obligated to state it. He didn’t, or couldn’t, because like so many commenters on other blogs, he is an ass.
      3. I also stated that the post would be based on the assumption that the windows were closed, which was an assumption that governed most of the Free Range Kid’s blogger’s argument. Once a writer has stated the conditions underlying the post, the discussion of the ethics involves is no longer relevant to the actual facts. At that point, it doesn’t alter a thing about my post if it turned out the whole story is a hoax. But the idiotic “gurper,” being a troll, a fool, and an ass (but I repeat myself) doesn’t comprehend any of this, meaning that all the discourse here is probably beyond his comprehension.
      4. It is a big difference, but since I also explored what was wrong with that scenario briefly, I obviously recognized it without his rude and insulting interjection, moreover, worst case scenarios in effect, the “difference” is between being broiled to death and snatched out of a car by a child predator who then abuses them and dumps their headless bodies in a canal. Either way, the mother deserves to be charged.

      5. Calling me “dumbass” is an offensive way to enter the fray here, and in fact will usually result in a permanent ban. As did this comment. The irony, however is not lost on me, since gurper proved himself both dumb AND an ass. If he could have worked “too lazy to read” in there, it would have been perfect.

      • I love calling posts posy’s! Lets make it a meme. So much friendlier to think of a post as a posy!
        Sorry Jack, just a little cheek at your expense. A response like gurper’s is enough to cause spitting and swearing in my neck of the woods.

      • Gurper. Now if only I’d had the mental dexterity to think of that as a online handle first!

        Four young children left alone in a parked car on a hot summer day. If the windows were rolled up, it would have quickly become a life threatening situation – especially for the two toddlers. If rolled down, the car would have been vulnerable to thieves and kidnappers. Neither was a justifiable option. She should either have left them at home with a trusted babysitter or brought them inside with her. Most large stores have child riding attachments to the shopping carts. The older two could walk and fetch items for her upon direction. Then you check out, stow your plunder, rev ‘er up and all is accomplished. Instead, this woman was too lazy to do this and risked her children’s lives alone in a parking lot. She deserved arrest and a good whack upside the head besides.

  11. If Mosley did this once, she may well have done it before, and is a risk to do it again. The best way to teach her not to do it again is, at very least, to scare her, inconvenience her, publicly embarrass her, and use the legal system to show how serious her wrongful conduct was, and how seriously society regards it.
    That’s exactly what I think.

  12. 1) Purpose – Laziness of parent (although some would argue mere convenience so parent can keep living unencumbered life – you say potatoe I say potato) vs Laziness of parent (although some would argue mere convenience so parent can keep living unencumbered life)
    2) Method of control – Tied to a Leash vs Locked in Car
    3) Damage to children – Subconscious damages to the Child (dehumanization, loss of dignity, etc) vs Likely physical (up to and including fatality)
    4) Potential hazard mitigating methods – none vs turn on Air Conditioning and decrease duration of control

    The two topics are quite related.

    The mother should be fined, put on probation, and have her name and infraction published during the probation period.

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