Today I read the sad news about a New York single mother, Kim Brathwaite, who left her two children, ages nine and one, alone while she went to work. The babysitter had not shown up, and being afraid that if she missed work she would lose her new job as assistant manager at McDonalds, Kim made the decision to leave them alone, trying to stay in touch by phone while she worked the night shift. While she was gone, someone set fire to her apartment and both children died. The mother has been charged with reckless endangerment of her children.
This reminded me of another heartrending story several years ago of an AU student who had left her two toddlers in the bath and gone downstairs briefly. She became distracted, spending longer than expected, and upon returning discovered that the younger one had drowned. At the time my heart went out to this mom – she was like all of us at AU, working hard to improve our lives, with a lot of responsibility and stress on our plate. Yet a moment’s distraction had resulted in a lifetime of heartbreak.
Some of us might read these stories and say, “I would never do that.” I read them and say, “there but for the grace of god go I.” As a single parent, I know how often we are faced with complex, difficult choices in caring for our children, choices that could end in disaster – just as did the situation in New York.
Intact two-parent families are not immune to this either, since any parent can be temporarily distracted when caring for their child, leaving them alone and in danger. But two-parent families rarely have to face the dilemma the New York mom did – stay at home to care for your children and risk losing the only means of supporting them, or leave them home alone temporarily so that you can provide food and shelter for them. Two-parent families have options single parents don’t. They have the luxury of choosing whether one parent (usually the mother) will remain at home as the primary child caregiver.
Even if they make the decision to both work outside the home, there is the opportunity to share child care responsibilities between parents, adjusting schedules so that a parent can be at home with the children as much as possible. Mothers in two parent families are generally not worn down by the stress of full parental and economic responsibility and may have more time to be available to watch and care for their children. Two wage earners usually have sufficient financial security to allow parents access to quality child care. This is not to say problems don’t occur here either. In the same newspaper I read an item about a Florida nanny who was caught on video nanny-cam beating the child in her care.
There are parents of both types of families who are negligent, who leave their children alone without justification – and such parents are rightly held to accounting for such negligence. Only a few weeks ago we read in horror of a 2 year old in Florida who was left in an apartment when her mother went to jail, and survived for three weeks on dried pasta and ketchup. Closer to home, a few years ago in Calgary an exchange student from Japan abandoned her two infant children, leaving them in an apartment to die. When charged with their murder, a picture emerged of an isolated and stressed single mother unable to cope with bringing up her children alone.
The New York mother was not a negligent parent by all accounts. Kim was a devoted mother who was struggling to make a good life for her children, and according to her lawyer, “guilty of nothing more than being a single mom working a 12-hour shift.” In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore highlighted a similar story, where a single mother was obligated to participate in a work for welfare program, leaving her children in the care of her brother while she worked from early morning to late in the evening. The six year old found a gun, took it to class and murdered a classmate.
Many of us single parents would never take such a huge risk of leaving our children home alone for a complete 12 hour work shift; and in fact all responsible parents are generally vigilant about leaving children home alone, period. But do we leave them for just a few minutes and run down the street on a quick errand? Or leave them for a few minutes alone in the car? I remember the first time I made that error. I had not been a single parent for very long, and had to take my three little ones with me wherever I went. Any parent who has had to bundle up a baby and two small children in winter, and drag them around from store to store, knows just how exhausting the process can be.
On this particular afternoon, we had been shopping all afternoon, and the baby had fallen asleep in the car seat. My final stop involved just running in to the drugstore to purchase one item. Rather than go through all the work involved to take all of them out of the van; I parked right by the door, told my oldest I would be right back, locked the doors, and headed for the store. To my horror, when I emerged, my van was in the middle of the parking lot, surrounded by people knocking on the window. My oldest (only six at the time), had decided to hop into the driver’s seat and managed to put the vehicle in gear, causing it to roll down the incline. The crowd of people were trying to persuade my daughter to open the door so they could help, but terrified, she had retreated back into the passenger seat and was not budging. Embarrassed and chastened, feeling sick at having taken such a risk, I left the store and never made that error again. But what if the van had rolled into the path of an oncoming car that day?
In our regular day to day activities, we parents often give responsibility to the older ones to care for siblings in a variety of ways. Single parents, in particular, tend to give greater responsibility to older children out of necessity. At the age of nine, my eldest was quite capable of caring for her baby sister – from diapering to bathing to feeding – since I relied on her to be able to help. I’ve left an older one in the tub with a younger one for a brief moment, with the admonition to, “just watch your sister for a half a minute while I go grab a towel.” Sometimes the phone rings, or another child calls and distracts your attention and it’s several minutes before you return. Or I’ve left the children outside, giving them the responsibility to watch the baby while I run in to get something – again it is easy to become distracted, or a vicious dog on the loose could end up in the yard.
In a shopping mall, how often do you take one child into the bathroom and leave the other outside watching the baby in the carriage, or leave the children unattended in the grocery cart for just a moment – long enough for an accident or kidnapping to occur. There are countless potentially dangerous situations where a moment’s inattention could have fatal consequences.
As a working single parent, I shared the babysitting struggle the New York mom did. I was working as a musician on a night shift, and it was next to impossible to find a sitter to cover the late night hours I required. Even when I found someone I thought was reliable, I would sometimes learn after the fact that they had been indifferent or careless with my children; or even worse – were rough with the children, or had raided the liquor cabinet, or invited boyfriends over, or lit candles recklessly.
My babysitting difficulties became so pronounced at one point, that I resorted to taking my young daughters with me to the hotels where I was performing, leaving them in a hotel room for the evening while I worked. I would come and check on them every hour on my breaks, and they had an emergency telephone number, plus strict instructions to open the door to no one. The oldest was already almost eleven years old and I knew she was responsible enough to care for her siblings, and I was just down the hallway, checking in frequently on them, so I felt they were as safe as they possibly could be. But even so – this could have been a dangerous situation had something unexpected occurred. Fortunately I only had to do this for a short time, and managed to find a reliable live-in babysitter who was willing to take care of my children in exchange for room and board. But what if there had been a fire in that wing of the hotel when I was out of the room?
Overall, I don’t think I ever did anything that would have put my children at risk unnecessarily, and at the time I made what I thought was a logical decision borne out of a difficult situation with few options. In retrospect, however, I realize that in any of these situations, a tragedy could have occurred. Leaving your children home alone even for a few minutes could put them at the same risk as leaving them home alone for a twelve hour shift. In only a moment, an unexpected event can occur. It only takes a moment. Then – like the New York mother – not only might I have lost my most precious possession – I might have been facing criminal charges for negligence.
Criminal charges, of course, are nothing compared to the life sentence of having a child die. To lose your children in such a tragic accident is an incomprehensible pain. To yet bear the responsibility of that loss because of a moment’s distraction, or because you made a decision to leave them home alone – whether for minutes or hours – is an agony no parent should ever have to endure.
Children left home alone die in fire: Single mother made fatal decision when sitter didn’t show. Nina Bernstein, New York Times, in the Edmonton Journal, October 19, 2003.
Girl, 2, OK After 3 weeks alone:
Calgary mother charged: Diary reveals events leading to two children’s deaths. National Post, June 9, 2001. http://fact.on.ca/news/news0106/np01060b.htm
Movie review: Bowling for Columbine, Debbie Jabbour, Voice November 13/02.
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.