There are two unattended vehicles in a Rhode Island parking lot on a hot summer day. One has a child inside, and the other, an animal. Police are called.
In the case of the pet, police or animal control can take "all steps that are reasonably necessary to remove an animal from a motor vehicle" if the animal is at risk.
They are to leave a note for the motorist and bring the pet to an animal hospital for observation. The motorist must pay all costs associated with the rescue, and can face up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $1,000 or both, according to the state’s "Animal confinement in motor vehicles prohibited" law.
In the case of a child, police can "provide a verbal warning" to the parent or caregiver about risks and dangers associated with leaving a kid in a car. No fines or sanctions can be imposed, according to the state’s "Child passenger protection" statute.
Sen. John Pagliarini highlighted this discrepancy in a senate hearing in March. This seemed outrageous, so we called and asked him to explain.
He told us if you look at the law for leaving a pet unattended in a car (§ 4-1-3.2) and compare it to the law for leaving a child unattended in a car (§ 31-22-22.1), the penalties for people who leave pets behind are more severe.
"It looks as though you’re in more trouble if you leave your pet in the car than if you leave your child in the car," Pagliarini said in an interview with The Journal. "One would think we value our pets more than our children."
Pagliarini said he wasn’t sure if existing child neglect laws would apply in this case, but he encouraged a further look.
"I hope I’m wrong," Pagliarini said.
Well, we’re going to find out.
Looking only at the two laws outlined above, it seems Pagliarini is correct. For example, the pet law explicitly authorizes police to break into a car with a pet inside. For a child, there is no such language.
We asked Sgt. Michael Wheeler in the Providence Police Department’s Youth Service Bureau what happens in practice.
"If there's a child in the car and I need to break into the car, I’m breaking into the car," he said. "We deal with everything else later on."
Wheeler told us that in cases like this, Providence police are to get the child out of the car first. Then they take the child to Hasbro Children’s Hospital for assessment and contact the Department of Children, Youth and Families.
Providence’s police chief, Col. Hugh Clements, who serves as the president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said the same thing. Police would immediately contact EMTs and get the child help.
They take the child to Hasbro even if the parent, or driver, shows up during this whole process. At the hospital DCYF caseworkers, along with the hospital staff, can assess whether the child is in imminent danger or needs to be held further, Wheeler said.
Under § 40-11-5 police, social workers or doctors are allowed to take a child into custody for 72 hours without parental consent if the child has any injuries caused by "other than accidental means." Leaving your child in a hot car on a 99-degree day might fall into that category, Wheeler said.
Kerri White, a public information officer for DCYF, said her department might open a Child Protective Services investigation after a report like this.
If investigators find the child is in danger, DCYF is to place the child on a protective hold (explained earlier) and seek a child protective order from the Family Court and remove him or her from the home.
Amy Kempe, a spokeswoman in the attorney general’s office, said authorities can use existing child abuse and child neglect statutes (like § 11-9-5) to bring criminal charges against parents or caregivers depending on "the facts and circumstances of a specific incident."
"Please note, cruelty to or neglect of a child is a felony with a maximum penalty of three years, $1,000, or both," said Kempe in an emailed statement.
Kempe pointed to the state’s "Brendan's Law," which protects kids from serious bodily injury — meaning things like creating a substantial threat of death, broken bones, impairment of organs, etc. — or any physical injury — which the law defines as an injury "which arises other than from the imposition of non excessive corporal punishment."
With these standards, a parent or caregiver could face charges of first-degree child abuse, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Or they could be charged with second-degree child abuse and face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Enter Sen. Lou Raptakis and his amendment to the "child passenger protection" law, which was introduced in the Senate on Jan.13.
His problem with the way the current law stands is that Brendan’s Law and the other statutes Kempe mentions only apply if the child is injured, unlike in the animal-husbandry bill, where the motorist is culpable no matter what.
"It’s kind of absurd that a child doesn’t have the same protection as an animal does," Raptakis said.
In his amendment, which he hopes will be up for vote later this month, a parent or caregiver would face the similar penalties as in the animal bill if they leave a child under 7 unattended in a car for more than 5 minutes.
Sen. Pagliarini says "You’re in more trouble if you leave your pet in the car than if you leave your child in the car."
We looked at the laws, and at face value, he’s right.
But, through the power of the DCYF, police, hospital staff and child neglect statutes like Brendan’s Law, parents or caregivers can get in a heap of trouble if they leave a child in these circumstances.
Because the statement leaves out important details about actual practice, we rate it: Half True.