Ethics Alarms Encore: “Ethics Quiz: Four Young Children Locked In A Hot Car” (July 31, 2014)


[ I’m a mess today; exhausted, distracted, sad. I’m mad at myself about it too, but you can’t reason away or rationalize away grief. Everything makes me think about my little dog. It’s 85 degrees; gee, is it too hot to walk…oh. Right. I feel like a nap: Hey Rugby, want to…oh. Of course. Silly me. Then that TV commercial comes on with the Jack Russell in the car letting his ears blow in the breeze, smiling. Rugby did that. Crap.

So, lazy though it may be, I’m going to put up an old post of interest, an Ethics Quiz. We’re heading into the “locking kids—and dogs—in hot cars” season, so here’s a post about that topic from five years ago.]


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


15 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Encore: “Ethics Quiz: Four Young Children Locked In A Hot Car” (July 31, 2014)

  1. “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.”

    Not only do I disagree, but this is obviously not true. Like… obvious in that arguing the inverse is facially absurd. There is almost no series of events where children put into government care come out better than they would have been with their parents. I’m not saying that this behavior was good, I’m not saying that the law should not address this, I’m saying the punishment is *ridiculously* overblown.

    I’m not sure what American theory on lawcrafting is, but in Canada, when considering a law, lawmakers are required to do three things:

    1) Identify that a situation exists that there should be a law to deal with.
    2) Craft the law in such a way so as the law actually deals with the situation. And
    3) Make sure that the punishment for breaking that law is proportionate to the law being broken.

    Ripping children out of their homes because their parents made a mistake, even one that was possibly life threatening, is cruel, counter-intuitive, and a great example of the kind of power I’d rather not let the government have.

  2. I posed the question at work about these parents who supposedly forget their children. In a hot car, go to work or to a store, and they bake to death. My inclination is to put those parents in jail and throw away the key. But many ladies at work, and mrs eo, informed me that this is quite common. and it is entirely possible to forget children on a car seat.. I don’t understand how – but then again when my kids were that age I had a running one way conversation with them in the car. Kind of hard to forget them if you’re talking to them.

    Apparently this lady did it on purpose! This is child cruelty, plain and simple. You wouldn’t treat a dog like this, much less a child, mich less four. I can’t imagine shopping with four kids, which is why I stopped at 3. But the answer has to be something other than leaving them in a hot car.

    As far as no one getting hurt, if you shoot into a crowd and miss, no harm no foul?

    • Add up lack of sleep, crazy busy parents, and a well rutted routine and I can see how this happens.

      That is ALL no excuse: parents are responsible for caring for children. It even happened to my wife and I once (and ONLY once) as new parents. After a long (8 hour) car trip, we arrived home after dark and unloaded what we needed only… including the diaper bag and baby necessities. We turned to change the boy’s diaper… and realized we left him (locked) in the car. He was still there, sleeping soundly.

      He was there 15 minutes (including unloading time: how did he sleep through THAT?), was unhurt by the incident, and we were in a strange and new situation… but we acted as if we had delivered him to an axe murderer. Rest assured that it never happened again.

  3. “Too many children die every year from this tragic mistake that arises from distracted parenting, ignorance, and poorly aligned priorities. “

    More consequentialism. That is a big problem. If they are all okay being in the car for 15 minutes and we call it moral luck that they did not die, but we don’t call it moral (un)luck if they died after 3 minutes on a cool day.

    Moral luck cuts both ways and is, thus, a stupid basis for judging things. I always wear a seat belt, never leave my kids alone in the car, unless parked in my driveway and I forgot their water bottle in my house, and they are always strapped into their car seat. You know what, I have not gotten into a car accident with them in my car during their whole life.

    Strapping them in or wearing my seat belt would be moral luck no matter how you cut it. If I strap them in, it is only moral luck that they did not did if we crashed. If they got trapped by their seat belts, their deaths would be the same luck.

    My partner almost never pays the meter; I do so almost religiously. I pay much more to park than he does (he happily pays the occasional parking ticket because, per Ruddigore, it is what he owes).

    But consequentialism of moral luck seem never to absolve, but only to condemn. You are unethical if you leave your kids alone in the car. Even if they don’t die, that is luck. If they die, then it’s unethical. The concept is practically meaningless, because the consequence does not matter. The proposition seems to determine everything.

    Okay, done ranting for now.


    • It’s moral luck whatever happens. T^he question is whether the conduct is ethical at t5he outset. Leaving toddlers in a locked car on a hot day is child endangerment no matter what happens. In law we punish consequences, but the wrongful conduct is unchanged.

  4. Maybe I have a broken gene but this is a no brainer, five years ago and even more so today. Having four kids is never going to get easier or less distracting, and now those tykes are five years older and even more likely to get in trouble singly or en masse if left alone for only a few minutes. Today this is even more unforgivable as the delivery of life’s necessities is free or nearly so, delivered to your home or for in-car pickup. Wanting time away from kids does not justify abandoning them. I hope her family learned the lesson to monitor her.

    Get a sitter, get a wing man, or wait until you can con a family member to help with the supply run. You got four kids and you MUST get your act together to give them a decent chance in life, that is the job you signed up for when you decided to raise them yourself. [State or foster system being far from ideal is not that relevant, because the cost of this kind of screw up is death or disability. The state system has many flaws but it is better than being dead]. This falls in the general group of scared straight. The police lecture would not have made enough impact, Perhaps she needs to watch and comprehend how cute children were who did not get out of a sealed car in time? Hear how lame their excuses sound at the fuerals? I know that could be considered cruel punishment, but leaving toddlers strapped in the sweltering heat is also cruel punishment for being too much for the ditz to handle.

    Babysitting is not a four letter word and can be traded, etc. Hell, yes, she needed to be arrested. The children are the victims, not the mother.

  5. Perhaps the best result would be an agreed disposition and having the court defer any guilty finding for a period of time, require the mother to attend parenting classes, and, if no further problems, dismiss the case. IF the the mother is paying attention (and that’s a big IF on purpose), she gets to keep the kids, learns her lesson, becomes a better parent, and avoids a criminal record. If this is what happens, I think she’s getting off lightly.

  6. Rationalizations aside; what this mother did was child neglect that factually puts the children in physical danger of death; if anyone denies this they are being obtuse.

    The extent of prosecution in this particular case without “similar” neglect occurrences by this same lady is probably limited, so prosecuting to the full extent of the law might be limited. This lady is making choices that directly affect the safety of children and she is knowingly and willingly putting them in physical danger.

    Don’t sugar coat this, here are the real world conditions again…
    four children, aged 6, 4, 2, and 1, locked in an SUV with the windows rolled up and it’s 90 degrees outside

    Here’s an example of how the temperature can change in a sealed car…

    To those that are rationalizing the behavior as “just a mistake”, answer this for me; if this mother was a child care worker and those children were the children of other parents, including yours, and you had put your children’s safety and care in this lady’s care, would you leave your children in her care? If not, why?

    The irresponsible and dangerous behavior is exactly the same no matter who’s children were in the car.

    This dangerous behavior is unacceptable in any way; prosecute the woman to the full extent of the law, whatever that happens to be in the state of the offense.

    • Well done. The fact that the kiddos were not injured is merely moral luck. I can’t wrap my Rush-infused head around doing something like this.

      I wonder about the “let society know we take this stuff seriously”, though. This happens all the time! Every week in Houston there is a sad-faced reporter telling us that poor mommy or daddy just popped into the store for a few items and came outside to either a dead child, a really angry neighbor, a police officer, or some such thing.


  7. Leaving kids in running car with or without AC is equally negligent. With 4 kids, one at least is old enough to put the car in gear.

  8. There are two facts not mentioned. One, what color was the car? My previous car was dark blue whereas my present car is white. I have noticed that my present car heats up a lot more slowly than my previous car. Two, did she park in the sun or under the shade of a tree or building? When I park in the shade it can take many times longer for the car to heat up. Could it be that the mother knew the children would be okay where she parked the car and it had nothing to do with moral luck?

  9. I am also a fan of Lenore but I agree that in this case she is wrong. The woman in this case made a deliberate decision to leave her children in a situation which any reasonable adult should know is potentially deadly. I believe in Florida she could be charged with culpable negligence.

    What about the situation that occurs when a parent, clearly by accident, leaves an infant in a car seat? In June 2015, there was a case locally where a teacher forgot to drop off her two-year-old child at daycare and discovered the body when she got in the car to go home after work. Ultimately the prosecutor decided not to bring charges citing the fact that it was determined to be an accident. The month before that, also in Florida, a 16-month-old child died after the father, an assistant public defender, forgot to drop her off at daycare before going to work. No charges were filed in that case either.

    • The problem I have with no charges being filed is what if the parent in question is the Andrea Yates/Casey Anthony type? Just leave the kid they don’t want anymore in the car, put on a big blubbery show for the authorities after they “discover” the body, and they get off scot-free.

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