The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a district court judge’s decision to dismiss a charge of reckless endangerment of a child against a woman whose three-year-old daughter was found alone on a nearby playground. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Santos.
On May 13, 2016, a Saugus police officer responded to an elementary school to investigate the report of a little girl wandering through the playground by herself. The officer remembered the same child had been found alone in the same playground the previous month. On this date, the girl was taken to the nurse’s office and the officer saw she was wearing a t-shirt and diaper. She did not have any shoes on and appeared to be in good health. A second police officer drove to the girl’s mother’s apartment. After several minutes of banging on the door and ringing the doorbell, the mother opened the door and looked as if she had just woken up. She did not appear to be upset or alarmed in any way, and she did not ask the officer to help find her daughter. When the officer asked her where her daughter was, the mother responded, “at the playground?” She then told the officer she left her daughter in the living room to watch cartoons because she, the mother, needed to use the bathroom. When the mother returned to the living room, the little girl was gone. The front door to the apartment had been opened (and the deadbolt had been opened from inside the apartment). The mother said she had looked for her daughter for about 10 minutes before assuming she was playing with another neighborhood child. The officer asked the mother why she did not call 911 upon realizing her daughter was missing, and the mother admitted she had made a mistake. The cops then reunited the mother with her daughter. The mother was charged with reckless endangerment of a child, but a district court judge concluded the police had not established probable cause to support the charge and, accordingly, dismissed the case. The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed.
A defendant commits the crime of reckless endangerment of a child by wantonly or recklessly engaging in behavior that creates a substantial risk of sexual abuse or serious bodily injury to a child, or wantonly or recklessly failing to take reasonable steps to remove such a risk when there was a duty to act. The risk must constitute a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe. The Appeals Court concluded leaving the child in front of the television to use the bathroom did not constitute reckless endangerment. However, once the mother realized the child was missing, her subsequent conduct created the type of substantial risk that is prohibited by the reckless endangerment statute. Common sense tells us that allowing a three-year-old to wander alone outside could have catastrophic consequences. She could have gotten lost, been hit by a car, or injured herself in any number of ways. The mother had an obligation to continue searching for the child and calling for help if she was unable to find her. Therefore, the police had probable cause to charge the mother with reckless endangerment of a child.
In this case, the Appeals Court determined only that there was probable cause to support the charge against the defendant. The case will now be returned to Lynn District Court and the defendant will need to decide whether to go to trial or to resolve her case by way of a plea.