The director of a local child-abuse prevention organization said Wednesday a Beaufort woman who left a toddler in a running car while she ate in a restaurant Sunday should be charged with a crime.
Numerous posts on social media have also called on Beaufort police to take tougher action against the woman, who was cited Sunday with parking an unattended motor vehicle.
Deputy Chief Dale McDorman, however, says state law doesn't provide for child-related charges in this case. He did say, though, that the department had referred the case to the S.C. Department of Social Services.
The woman may have acted irresponsibly, but her actions did not violate any laws, he said Wednesday.
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The woman was cited Sunday but not arrested after leaving her 20-month-old child asleep in a child seat in the car parked in a lot on Boundary Street, according to a police report. The car was left running with the air conditioner on while the woman ate inside the restaurant with a friend, police said.
A customer leaving the restaurant spotted the child crying in the car, according to the report. Police were called at 3:17 p.m., McDorman said on Facebook.
Cpl. Hope Able said Tuesday the child was left in the car with the air conditioning on for about an hour and 15 minutes. The child did not require medical attention, Able said.
Christina Wilson, executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Association of Beaufort, says the woman's actions could have fallen under the state's charge of unlawful conduct toward a child.
The grounds for the charge require a parent or guardian to place a child at "unreasonable risk of harm affecting the child's life or physical, mental health or safety," conditions that Wilson said in a statement were met in this instance.
"We contend that the leaving of a 20-month-old in a running car does rise to the threshold mentioned of endangering the child's safety," Wilson's statement said.
She added, though, that she has confidence in the officers that handled the case, and it might be that the law needs to be changed to "directly address leaving a child in a car."
"Ultimately, I don't care how it is accomplished, but this child deserves to be protected," her statement said. "I'm hoping that DSS may intervene and try to increase this parent's ability to make sound choices. It is frustrating though that if this had been a dog in the car, the mother would be in jail."
Many have written on social media that the woman should have been arrested for leaving her child in the car.
In response to that outcry, McDorman wrote on the police department's Facebook page Tuesday that although police found the woman's actions irresponsible, she did not violate any child-related laws. McDorman said the department strongly discourages anyone from leaving their children in a car.
The child was found to be clean, appeared healthy, and was not in any distress, the post said. The mother had also checked on the child, McDorman said.
"Officers weighed the facts with the elements of the possible offense and determined that a very unwise, irresponsible act had occurred," McDorman said Wednesday. "However, no current law was violated. Police officers must act within existing laws. They cannot make up charges or be creative because they may find someone's actions completely out of line and irresponsible."
McDorman said a copy of the police report was forwarded to the Department of Social Services.
Unlawful conduct toward a child is a felony that can carry a 10-year prison sentence, according to state law. It also requires registration with the S.C. Department of Social Services' Central Registry of Abuse.
Wilson said in the statement that she had contacted state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, about state law prohibiting the woman's actions. Both agreed that a charge of unlawful conduct toward a child law should apply in this case, but if more direct language needed to be introduced, Erickson would help, Wilson's statement said.
Attempts Wednesday to reach Erickson for comment were unsuccessful.
McDorman said a bill was introduced in the state legislature during the 2009-2010 session that would have made the woman's actions illegal, but it was never passed.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.
- Beaufort woman cited after leaving child in car , June 2, 2015