That's what happened to a Colorado couple we'll call Ted and Jen. (They wish to remain anonymous, but I examined their paperwork.) Last spring, Ted's 3-year-old fell asleep on his way to Ace Hardware. He parked where he could still see her from the store and was gone for just 20 minutes. It was 40 degrees outside.
A passerby called the cops because many people believe that any time kids are alone in a car, they are in immediate danger of kidnapping or overheating. The tragic fact is that, every year, some children do die in cars. But the vast majority are young children who got into cars without their parents realizing it and couldn't get out or kids whose parents drove to work and completely forgot about the sleeping child in the back seat. In fact, 4.6 hours is the average time that kids who died in cars were unattended. Children deliberately left in the car for a brief period of time on a temperate day are in very little danger.
When Ted came out, the cop called to the scene said he was going to take the child into custody unless he could reach Ted's wife to see if she trusted Ted with the girl. Jen told the cop that Ted is a great dad, so Ted was allowed to leave with the child.
But Jen's heart was already breaking because she knew that this would probably impact the adoption process they were going through. Jen had had a kidney transplant in her 20s. Her daughter was born premature and spent two months in neonatal intensive care. Another pregnancy was not something they could risk. Dearly wanting another child, they had found an adoption agency, passed the home visit, paid $15,000 and were awaiting a child.
When a child services caseworker came to the home two days later, he looked through the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator and questioned Jen, who could not stop sobbing. Ted was at work. Jen says the caseworker told her that, during those 20 minutes, the child had been in danger of kidnapping (actually, stranger kidnappings are exceedingly rare) or choking (the child was safely strapped in her car seat). The caseworker later returned to question Ted.
Ted tried to explain that there is no actual law against letting a child wait in the car in Colorado and that the girl had been totally fine. But, says Jen, the caseworker told him, "I have to make it a finding, man." A "finding" means labeling Ted guilty of child neglect and placing his name on the state's child abuse registry. This registry, while not public, is accessible to public agencies, hospitals and even private employers doing background checks. In most states, the registration process occurs without any trial.
Ted and Jen tried to convince the adoption agency that they still would make good parents, but with this black mark on their record, the agency did not respond warmly. Eventually, Ted filed an appeal, and his registration status was expunged. Ted and Jen were sure that now they could adopt.
No such luck.
"We found out that expunged doesn't mean expunged," says Jen. "Your name stays in the registry. It just says 'expunged' on some different screen somewhere." The couple sought help from the county and state, but though her husband was officially no longer a "child abuser," it was impossible to take Ted's name off the registry. The adoption agency dumped them — and kept their $15,000 deposit.
When Ted and Jen applied to be foster parents, the state turned them down, too.
Now, Jen says, she expects she and Ted will never be allowed to adopt. The consequence of one rational decision by a dad will deprive a loving family of a child and a child of a loving family.