Last Wednesday, Jean and I ran into a little problem. That night, I had a long-scheduled dinner date with an editor in midtown—Totto Ramen, at last!—and had even arranged to meet the editor there at 9 p.m., just so Jean would have plenty of time to come home from work.
Alas, lately Jean’s had to stay at the office well beyond her usual 6:30, and she didn’t make it back to Brooklyn till, oh, let’s say 8:53 p.m. Meaning I couldn’t be in midtown by 9, meaning my editor decided to cancel the dinner. All in all, not a huge problem, but still a disappointment.
Still, it got me thinking: What if I’d just left the apartment at 8:30? Sasha, my 2-year-old, was already asleep in bed, and when she’s asleep, she’s very asleep. Jean would be home soon, so we’re talking about a 23-minute window of neglect. And even if Sasha did wake up crying, if either parent was home we’d almost certainly—99.9% of the time—just let her cry it out and go back to sleep. So, what was there for me to do in those 23 minutes except to simply BE there in case the apartment caught on fire? I’m not doing anything. Indeed, we’ve had a few babysitters who seemed totally disappointed when they learned that they’d be sitting more than babying. Well, at least we have cable. Why, I wondered last Wednesday, why couldn’t I just leave?
Let me be clear: I’m not going to leave Sasha alone at home. First of all, my wife would kill me. Second of all, my downstairs neighbors are total pyros.
Really, what I want to know is why I won’t leave Sasha alone. Is it because I have an irrational fear that the apartment will burn down in those 23 minutes? Or because I have a totally rational fear of prosecution for neglect?
To get an answer, I called up the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a kind of government clearninghouse (under HHS) for information about how to—and how not to—take care of kids. I put my question to a woman named Sandy: If my 2-year-old is asleep in a crib at night, is it illegal for me to go out for a drink, or just a terrible idea?
This, she said, is “a very, very gray area.” It’s not just that each state has different laws defining neglect. Most state laws look not only at actions but at intent. That is, did the parent intend to harm the child by neglecting it? This has a lot to do with class and poverty, so that poor families can’t be prosecuted if they can’t afford warm winter clothes or if a mother has to work nights while a kid is asleep at home.
So, if I—sorry, if some father wanted to leave the toddler alone asleep in a high-sided crib for a while, that probably wouldn’t land him in court.
Just to be sure, I looked up the New York State laws regarding abuse and neglect. Here’s the relevant part:
Citation: Soc. Serv. Law § 371
Neglected child means a child younger than age 18 whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as a result of the failure of his or her parent or other person legally responsible for his or her care to exercise a minimum degree of care:
So, does ducking out put a sleeping toddler’s “physical, mental, or emotional condition” in “imminent danger”? Is ducking out a failure to exercise a minimum degree of care in providing supervision? I’m no lawyer, but I’d bet that as long as the house didn’t burn down, it would be hard to convince a jury of neglect.
It’s still a bad idea, though, so don’t do it. Jerk.