The Law and Penalties for Leaving Children Unattended in Vehicles

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Child in car seat

A woman has been charged with murder after her one and two-year old daughters were found dead in a car, allegedly as a result of being exposed to extreme heat.

It has been reported that police and paramedics responded to an emergency callout in Logan, south of Brisbane in Queensland at 1.35pm on Saturday 23 November 2019 where they found two young girls, aged one and two years old, unresponsive, in a hot car.

Paramedics tried to revive the girls but they were declared dead at the scene.

It is reported that the toddlers, aged one and two, are sisters and the woman is their mother, and that the temperature outside was 31 degrees Celsius at the time.

The woman will appear in Brisbane Magistrates court this week where she is facing two counts of murder.

“The two children exhibited signs of being exposed to extreme heat and that is forming the direction of our investigation,” Detective Inspector Mark White told the media.

“It’s a very tragic incident which has occurred.”

Police are still conducting investigations to determine exactly what occurred.

Leaving children in cars

Parents, grandparents and guardians across the nation have faced this dilemma at one time or another: your baby or a toddler is asleep in the car and you’ve just filled up with petrol and need to duck in to the attendant and pay. Or you need to pop into the local shop for bread and milk, or to run into preschool / school and pick up an older sibling.

And, from time to time when the topic has been raised on talkback radio or via social media, parents tend to voice the belief that a ‘sensible decision’ can be made in the circumstances. But that’s not the case. In most states and territories across Australia it is a criminal offence to leave children unattended in a car.

The law in New South Wales

Leaving a child or a young person unattended in a motor vehicle is an offence under section 231 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 (NSW).

The section makes it an offence punishable by a fine of up to $22,000 for a person to leave any child or young person in the person’s care in a motor vehicle without proper supervision for such period or in such circumstances that:

  • the child or young person becomes or is likely to become emotionally distressed, or
  • the child’s or young person’s health becomes or is likely to become permanently or temporarily impaired,

There are also a number of offences contained in NSW criminal legislation which cover situations where a child is endangered or injured as a result of being left in a hot car.

These include section 43 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) which prescribes a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison where a person, “without reasonable excuse, intentionally abandons or exposes a child under 7 years of age… if it causes a danger of death or of serious injury to the child.

And section 35(2) of the Crimes Act sets a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for any person who “recklessly causes grievous bodily harm to any person”.

A person is ‘reckless’ if they foresee a likelihood that their actions will cause the harm, but go ahead regardless.

‘Grievous bodily harm’ means very serious harm, and includes permanent disfigurement and other serious and permanent injuries.

Other jurisdictions

Under section 494 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, it is against the law in Victoria for a “ person who has the control or charge of a child… [to] leave the child without making reasonable provision for the child’s supervision and care for a time which is unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case”.

The maximum penalty for the offence is six months in prison.

In South Australia, the offence of criminal neglect may apply where a child dies or suffers serious harm as a result of being left in a car for an unreasonable amount of time or otherwise left unattended. The penalties for the offence range from five to 15 years in prison.

And in Western Australia, a term of three years in prison and/or a fine of up to $36,000 applies to the offence of neglecting a child.

The dangers of a hot, locked car

The risk of heatstroke and dehydration to children is very real because their body temperature rises much faster than an adult’s, and even on a seemingly mild day, the temperature inside a parked car can be 20 to 30 degrees hotter than the temperature outside – leaving the windows down has virtually no effect on cooling the inside temperature.

There’s also the risk that someone could crash into the car if it’s parked on the curb, or, it could be stolen, with your baby in the back seat. Both of these happened to a Victorian couple earlier this year. Their car, with the toddler in the back seat, was stolen from a drive-through alley at a bottle shop. The car was found about half an hour later, abandoned, after it had struck a tree. The toddler was unharmed and a woman was arrested a short time later.

NRMA rescues more than 2000 children from locked cars

In 2017, the NRMA roadside assistance crew said it rescued more than 2000 children from locked and unattended vehicles over a 12 month period.

But not all of these were the result of Mum or Dad leaving the child to run an errand, many actually occurred after a shopping trip, when the child had been put into the car – seemingly safely out of harm’s way –  and given the keys to play with while Mum or Dad unloaded the shopping. High tech keys mean that at a touch of a button, the small child can have locked themselves in.

The Queensland incident is a tragedy, but it is also a very timely reminder for parents, especially with temperatures soaring across the country.

In case of any mishap, the average wait for an NRMA service vehicle can be about 30-40 minutes, time which can prove to be detrimental, if not deadly, for a small child locked in an airless car with the temperature rising.

Going to court for a criminal offence?

If you have been charged by police with a criminal offence, call Sydney Criminal Lawyers anytime on (02) 9261 8881 to arrange a free first conference with an experienced defence lawyer who will advise you of your options, the best way forward and fight to secure the optimal outcome in the circumstances.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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