ACROSS AMERICA — Last week in a quiet Chicago suburb, a 34-year-old mother of two pregnant with her third child survived what a leading child safety group warns is an alarming trend.
The 34-year-old mom pulled her SUV into her driveway in Libertyville, Illinois, about 3:30 Thursday afternoon, Patch previously reported. She took one of her children inside the house, and went out to retrieve her 2-year-old son from his car seat when a BMW pulled up, a man got out and attempted to steal her vehicle.
Police said she fought him, but the suspect overpowered her and drove away in her SUV with the toddler in the back seat, running over her as he fled. The boy was found unharmed a short time later in a parking lot in nearby Waukegan, about 10 miles away, and the mom is recovering from serious, non-life-threatening injuries, according to police.
The bold crime, occurring in daylight in a residential area, was the 32nd vehicle theft this year with a child inside, according to Kids and Car Safety, the only nonprofit in the United States devoted solely to preventing injuries and death to children in vehicle-related accidents.
“For the most part, these are probably average, wonderful, loving parents who had the mindset of ‘What could go wrong? I’m just running in for a second,’ ” Kids and Car Safety director Amber Rollins told Patch.
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A mother herself, she understands what’s involved in getting kids in and out of their car seats for an errand that will a minute or two.
“If I never have to buckle and unbuckle a car seat again, I’d be thrilled,” she said, adding, “It’s just one of these things we have to do” to keep kids safe.
Last year, 264 children nationwide were left alone in a vehicle that was later stolen, according to Kids and Car Safety. It happens in driveways in safe neighborhoods, at gas stations and in store parking lots.
So far this year, 41 children were left alone in the 32 vehicles that were stolen. The carjackings occurred in 20 states.
“These are crimes of opportunity, and car thieves know where people feel safe leaving their vehicles running,” Rollins continued. “They watch and they wait.”
Kids typically survive unharmed, and no fatalities have been reported so far in 2023, but car thefts and carjackings have been deadly in the past.
In most cases, “nothing is going to go wrong” if a child is left alone in a car for just a moment, she said. “But if it does, you can’t ever go back.”
One of the most tragic results from what Rollins calls a “fatal distraction” was in 2000 when a 6-year-old was killed in a carjacking in suburban Kansas City, Missouri, after his mother left him alone when she made a quick stop at a sandwich shop.
The boy became entangled in his seat belt when the carjacker tried to shove him out of the SUV, and the suspect probably thought he’d succeeded and took off, police said at the time. The boy’s mother opened the rear door trying to rescue her son, police said, but the carjacker took off before she could free him.
Witnesses told police the child was screaming for his mother to help him as the carjacker sped away. Other motorists pursued the stolen Chevrolet Blazer in a chase that witnesses told police reached speeds of up to 80 miles an hour.
‘Uh-Oh, I’ve Kidnapped Somebody’
In most cases, car thieves don’t realize until the crime has been committed that, “Uh-oh, I’ve kidnapped somebody,” and that can put the kids in even more danger, Rollins said.
“We’ve had kids murdered because the people who stole the vehicle didn’t know what to do,” she said
In 2017, a 6-year-old Jackson, Mississippi, boy was found fatally shot in the head in the backseat of his mother’s abandoned car nine hours after it was stolen from a grocery store parking lot.
“We’ve seen children dropped on people’s doorsteps, left in the gutter, handed to a drive-thru person through windows, or die because they were left in a hot car too long,” Rollins said.
In Washington, D.C., last month, Patch reported that a 6-year-old girl was left at a busy street corner about 25 minutes after a carjacker realized she was inside the vehicle he had stolen in Lincolnia, Virginia. She stayed behind in the back seat while her father made a quick trip inside a restaurant to pick up an order. The suspect faces multiple charges, including abduction and grand larceny.
“Most kids are returned unharmed, but they’re not really unharmed because, aside from the physical stuff, they’ve experienced the sheer terror of being taken by a stranger and abandoned,” Rollins said.
Parents Rarely Charged
A patchwork of laws makes it illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle in 20 states. The codes differ widely. Some make it illegal to leave a child under 6 unattended in a car. Others don’t specify age, and some determine severity by the amount of time a child is left alone. Some are triggered only when a fatality occurs.
Kids and Car Safety touts California’s law as a model. Money collected from fines is made available to city and country health departments to provide information on the dangers of leaving young children unattended in motor vehicles and ways to avoid that danger.
Parents who leave children unattended in their cars rarely face charges, even in the states that do have laws.
“We don’t want to play the blame game,” Rollins said. “We’re not out to blame parents; we’re out to protect children.
“The point is not to be the parent police or get child protective services involved in a situation that is not overtly neglectful. But we do have to have some deterrent, so people won’t do it,” she said, explaining that when states pass laws increasing parental accountability, “people talk about it” and awareness increases.
States that don’t address the issue leave law enforcement officials in a quandary — “having to choose between not charging or charging them with a more serious crime, child abuse, that doesn’t really fit with what happened,” Rollins said. “It leaves them with no good option.”
Children left unattended in cars face other perils, too. For years, Kids and Car Safety has been known for its advocacy surrounding hot car deaths. More than 1,000 children have died in hot cars since 1990.
“Car theft is only one thing that could go wrong. There are hundreds of cases of kids knocking cars into gear, of children getting out of the car and being run over because the driver couldn’t see them. Or they play with a seat belt and are strangled, or they find a firearm,” Rollins said. “The list goes on and on.”
Carjackings Up Nationwide
Kids and Car Safety’s public awareness campaign comes as motor vehicle thefts are spiking in 30 major cities — up 59 percent from 2019 to 2022, according to a report earlier this year from the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonprofit think tank that analyzes crime trends.
Carjackings started to increase in early 2020, according to the report, and then increased more sharply in 2022.
The number of cars stolen with a child inside slid to 84 in 2020, but increased to 121 in 2021 and 264 last year, an all-time high, Rollins said.
Not only that, the rise in the number of carjackings committed by young offenders, including 12- and 13-year-olds, is unprecedented, according to the National Association of District Attorneys.
Myriad factors are behind the increase, according to the DAs group. They include the lack of day-to-day structure when schools moved to virtual learning during the pandemic, compounded by a juvenile justice system that practically shut down, allowing serious and violent offenders to return to the community with limited supervision and programming. Also, according to the group’s issue brief, a spike in carjackings coincided with skyrocketing gun violence and unrest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
But some carjackings are for sport. Rollins noted a viral challenge on TikTok and other social media platforms that encourages young teens to steal certain models of Kia and Hyundai cars that don’t have a theft deterrent system.
Whatever the reason, “when you have a lot of juveniles stealing cars, those tend to be the cases that result in a crash,” Rollins said.
Her organization offers the following tips for parents:
1. Even if it’s just for a minute, never leave a child of any age alone in a vehicle.
2. If it’s an option, use curbside pickup or drive-through lanes, so you don’t have to get out of your car. If the business doesn’t offer curbside delivery, call when you arrive, tell them you have small children you don’t want to leave alone in the car, and ask if they’ll send someone out with your order.
3. When you’re pumping gas, lock the car and keep the keys in a secure place.
It’s never OK to leave a child in a vehicle unattended, Rollins said.
“Our database is full of dead children and parents who will never be the same because of it,” she said. “That’s not something anybody wants to live with.”
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