What Is Child Endangerment? When Leaving Your Child Alone Becomes A Crime.

Dax Tejera’s wife is facing charges for leaving her children unattended in their hotel room. So, when does a parenting mistake become a law-breaking one?
Who has the responsibility to inform the authorities if a child is left unattended?
Jesús Argentó Raset / EyeEm via Getty Images
Who has the responsibility to inform the authorities if a child is left unattended?

On the evening of Dec. 23, ABC News executive producer Dax Tejera and his wife, Veronica, left their sleeping children, ages 2 years and 5 months, in a New York City hotel room while they went out to dinner about a block and a half away.

Dax, 37, was initially reported to have suffered a heart attack at the restaurant. He was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The office of the chief medical examiner of New York City told People Feb. 9 that Dax died from choking while intoxicated.

Veronica accompanied her husband in the ambulance, and, in a statement shared with Entertainment Tonight, she said: “I asked both a close friend and my parents to rush to my children’s hotel room to attend to them as I monitored them by camera. The hotel would not allow my friend in and instead called the NYPD.”

The New York Post reported that the New York Police Department responded to a call at the hotel at 11 that night.

In her statement, also shared with the Post, Veronica said: “We had two cameras trained on my children as they slept, and I monitored them closely in the time I was away from them. While the girls were unharmed, I realize that it was a poor decision.”

She also asked for privacy for her family in the wake of her husband’s sudden death.

Veronica faces two counts of “acting in a manner injurious to a child” and is scheduled to appear in Manhattan criminal court on Thursday.

The case has wrought plenty of online judgment of the Tejeras’ actions in the hours preceding Dax’s death.

When the story of Veronica being charged was shared on the HuffPost Parents Facebook page, it quickly racked up hundreds of comments. Most were understanding of Veronica choosing to accompany her husband in the ambulance but unforgiving of the couple leaving the children alone in the first place.

“I’m shocked that she left two small children under the age of 3 alone in the hotel room to go out to dinner with her husband,” wrote one commenter. “She says she had cameras focused on them, but what is a camera going to do if one of them began choking or stopped breathing?”

Another Facebook user wrote, “They had Soo many resources ... If she was a poor woman in an inner city she would’ve been arrested.”

Others reasoned that going around the corner was not so different from leaving children in a hotel room while parents dine in a restaurant downstairs — an accepted practice in other countries, as well as in the U.S. in other eras.

Parents are accustomed to feeling a judgmental gaze when out in public with children, whether carrying a baby on board an airplane or allowing a toddler to drink Coca-Cola.

“Don’t judge,” we plead, assuring our friends without kids that they simply can’t understand until they’ve walked a mile pushing our strollers.

We also all know the uneasy feeling of having made a mistake, the tug of “I shouldn’t have done that,” although, mercifully, not usually before an audience — or a judge.

But when does a parent’s bad judgment cross the line into illegal activity? And how does the publicity around high-profile cases like this one affect everyone’s parenting choices?

Who determines what child endangerment looks like?

Just as anyone can type a blistering comment on social media, any individual can make a call to the police or to Child Protective Services, potentially triggering a process leading to state involvement in a family’s life — including a parent’s possible loss of custody.

Josh Gupta-Kagan, a professor at Columbia Law School, told HuffPost, “Standards for child endangerment — both civil and criminal — can be vague and thus require somebody to apply discretion and judgment.”

“There are typically no rules like ‘No child below X years of age can be left home alone,’ or ‘A parent cannot be more than Y feet from a child sleeping in a hotel but Z feet if they have an electronic monitor’ — the law isn’t nearly that specific.”

Indeed, in New York, this element of discretion is written into the law itself. Criminal endangerment is defined as “lack of reasonable diligence as to a child under 18,” but officials are on their own to determine what qualifies as “reasonable.”

Martin Guggenheim, professor emeritus at New York University School of Law and co-director of its Family Defense Clinic, told HuffPost that “reasonable tests take everything into account: the age of the child, the length of time the child is left alone, the safety considerations the parent took into account (such as a camera), the distance from the child.”

New York’s juvenile court, in its definition of neglect, specifies that it varies according to circumstance, stating: “A child of 12 might be fine alone for two hours in an afternoon. Yet, the same child may be incapable of responsibly caring for a 5-year-old for that same period of time.”

Rather than specifics written into the law, Gupta-Kagan said, “instead you have a set of actors — citizens (or hotel employees) who decide to call the police or not, police who decide to arrest or not, CPS workers who decide there is reason for concern or not, prosecutors who decide to press charges or not — who exercise discretion.”

Parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds do not receive equal treatment from the justice system.
Ross Anania via Getty Images
Parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds do not receive equal treatment from the justice system.

Does this element of discretion effectively render the system discriminatory?

“I am 1,000% sure this is not the first instance in which parents have left children asleep with an electronic monitor in a hotel room to get a drink around the corner,” Gupta-Kagan said.

The case is getting attention, he noted, because the parents are wealthy and well-known — which is actually atypical of these kind of cases.

“Other cases,” he said, “have played out disproportionately against poor and working-class parents who leave children alone when faced with a need to go to work or a job interview and don’t have accessible, affordable child care.”

Gupta-Kagan recounted a particularly egregious example from North Augusta, South Carolina. In the summer of 2014, a single mother named Debra Harrell left her 9-year-old in a nearby park while she worked her shift at McDonald’s. She was subsequently arrested and charged with a felony. Harrell is Black.

“If you are wondering how much discretion to give authorities versus how much to trust parents’ judgment, one reason to trust parents’ judgment is to avoid that discretion being used in a manner that hurts poor and minority families disproportionately,” Gupta-Kagan said.

Guggenheim echoed this tendency to discriminate. “The bulk of my work over my career has been working with families living in poverty or near poverty and who (a) are forced to make difficult choices simply to get by each day, (b) live in a dramatically more exposed world than wealthy parents living in the suburbs or tony ZIP codes and (c) are judged far more harshly than wealthy parents.”

Guggenheim clarified that the criminal charges reported by the media against Veronica Tejera pose significantly less of a threat than potential civil charges, which would be tried in a New York City family court rather than criminal court.

In comparison to a civil charge, a criminal charge of child endangerment is more of a minor infraction, explained Guggenheim, in which “the outcome almost invariably is a guilty plea to a misdemeanor ... and the punishment usually is something along the lines of a fine or a short period of probation.”

Civil charges in family court, on the other hand, could result in more devastating consequences.

“Parents taken to family court are at very high risk of having their children removed from their custody and placed in foster care and, much more often than you may think possible, that leads to the permanent termination of parental rights,” Guggenheim said.

There is still a possibility that Tejera will also be brought up on civil charges in family court. Guggenheim said that, if informed of the criminal charges, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services would have 60 days to investigate and decide whether or not to bring its own charges against her.

If civil charges aren’t brought against her, the case, said Guggenheim, would be “a perfect illustration of the classism of what we call the child welfare system.”

“Except for extreme examples of child abuse, civil child endangerment is basically the exclusive province of families living in poverty and non-white families,” he continued.

How does the system’s scrutiny affect our parenting?

While poor families bear the worst consequences of this discriminatory system, all parents are affected by the knowledge that any misstep could lead to state involvement in our families — or public censure.

Nancy McDermott, author of “The Problem With Parenting: How Raising Children Is Changing Across America,” told HuffPost that what strikes her about the Tejera case is that “parents make mistakes all the time, and usually it doesn’t become public life.”

Wondering if video monitors, like the one Tejera said she was using, “give people a false sense of security,” she is also concerned that we are buying into the idea that parents can control everything.

If we believe that every possible harm can be prevented by a parent’s actions, then anything that happens to a child could be attributed to a parent’s negligence.

“Is what’s being put forward here that you should never ever leave children by themselves? Because what does that mean? Does that mean that I have to sit with my children every night as they go to bed in their room?” she said.

Parents know it’s a risk to take our eyes off our children. We also know that we can’t care for our children — work, clean or prepare food — without shifting our attention elsewhere. Parenting requires us to negotiate this dissonance via a series of decisions every day.

The danger, said McDermott, is that “in attacking parents like this, we undermine parents’ authority.”

“Kids need adults that they can count on, and people are constantly giving them the message that they can’t trust their parents, or their parents are incompetent — it really undermines family life.”

“It’s so much easier to bring up kids when adults are on the same page and supporting one another,” she added.

This article has been updated with Dax Tejera’s official cause of death.

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