Friday, February 16, 2024

Home Alone Is Not A Crime

I recently watched a video of an excellent argument before the Iowa Supreme Court in an appeal of a child endangerment conviction.

I was convinced that the conviction would be reversed and, for once, I was right

A parent commits child endangerment under Iowa Code section 726.6(1)(a) (2021) when the parent “[k]nowingly acts in a manner that creates a substantial risk to a child or minor’s physical, mental or emotional health or safety.” (Emphasis added.) Here we consider whether a mother of six children “create[d]” such a risk by leaving her oldest five children, whose ages ranged from twelve to five, asleep in their home while the mother went to Walmart for groceries. Id. Under the facts presented, we do not believe that the mother created a risk that violated section 726.6(1)(a). Accordingly, we reverse the mother’s conviction of child endangerment.


In 2021, Paula Cole lived in an apartment at 1009 South Hackett Road in Waterloo. Paula’s apartment was part of a complex of apartments in a secured building. You need a key or a card to get into the building.

Cole lived with her six children. She had four boys and two girls. The oldest boy was twelve. The second oldest boy was ten. The oldest girl was nine. There were two younger boys, ages seven and five. The youngest girl was an infant.

On the morning of July 2, 2021, Cole decided to drive to Walmart to get diapers, toilet paper, and groceries. She took her infant girl with her. She left around 11 a.m. The evidence is mixed as to whether Cole woke up any of the children before leaving. The jury could have found that she left them sleeping in the apartment.

While Cole was gone, a controversy arose among the children. The nine-year-old girl, C.C., had a disagreement with one of the younger boys. The disagreement was about leftover food. C.C. threatened to “put hands” on the younger boy, but then the ten-year-old boy, Q.C., intervened. C.C. backed off but decided to leave the apartment building.

9-1-1 was called

The 911 dispatch sent Officer Shawn Bram to the apartment complex. In his testimony, Bram said that dispatch had told him that “a child had called in reporting that their sibling had run away.” But the 911 recording does not include any reference to any child running away. Rather, as noted, Wheeler told the dispatcher that C.C. was “right outside the building.”

When Bram arrived at the apartment building, he was greeted by several of the children. Bram testified that, in his conversation with these children, he was told that C.C. had said “she was going to run away,” and that Q.C. “was worried for his sister’s safety.” But Bram also testified that, when he arrived, C.C. was with the other kids who greeted him in front of the building. “She never actually took off and ran away that I’m aware of,” Bram confirmed.  Bram also confirmed that: • None of the children had actually run away. • No child was lost. • No child was crying. • No child was bleeding. • No one was hurt at all.

The children let Bram into the apartment. Bram found that the twelve-year-old boy was either sleeping or pretending to sleep.

Meanwhile, dispatch contacted Cole. Cole arrived back at the apartment about twenty minutes after dispatch called her. She was carrying the infant and bags from Walmart when she came into the apartment.

Life is inherently risky

In light of the many risks that confront families in the course of ordinary life, as well as the inherent difficulty for parents in trying to balance those risks, courts must exercise special caution when deciding whether a parent has “create[d]” a particular risk and, therefore, may be subject to criminal liability under section 726.6(1)(a). Iowa Code § 726.6(1)(a)


In summary, for purposes of Iowa Code section 726.6(1)(a), a parent creates a risk when that risk is clearly outside the range of risks that accompany ordinary life. This requirement is satisfied when the risk results from (1) a parent’s independently unlawful behavior, (2) a parent’s overtly abusive behavior, or (3) other parent behavior that creates an identifiable risk that falls clearly outside the risks of ordinary life.

Applying these principles here, we conclude that Cole’s behavior did not fit into any of these three categories. To begin with, the State does not contend that Cole’s actions were independently unlawful. No Iowa statute prohibited Cole from leaving her five oldest children alone while she took the youngest to Walmart. Indeed, no Iowa statute sets a minimum age at which children can be left home alone. Officer Bram confirmed that this is true.

Similarly, no evidence suggests that Cole was overtly abusive toward her children. She did not hit them or otherwise harm them. And no child was harmed while Cole was absent. Officer Bram verified that no child was hurt or even crying. Finally, we see no evidence that Cole otherwise “create[d]” an identifiable risk that fell outside the range of risks that accompany ordinary life. Id. Cole left to get groceries and diapers while her oldest children, ages five through twelve, slept in their home. No evidence suggests that this strategy created any extraordinary risk.

Indeed, no evidence shows that leaving the kids home was any riskier than driving them to Walmart (even assuming she had a vehicle that big).

The court's opinion is linked here. (Mike Frisch)

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