A state Assembly committee heard testimony Wednesday on two separate pieces of legislation which aim to prevent the deaths of vulnerable infants and toddlers when adults forget them inside vehicles, or sleep with them while intoxicated.
The Assembly Committee on Children and Families held a public hearing on a bill that would allow for prosecutors to criminally charge adults who cause the deaths of infants by sleeping with them while intoxicated. The measure (AB 465) is from Representative Samantha Kerkman (R-Powers Lake), and also includes an educational effort on co-sleeping.
“There’s a deterrent in there with the criminal penalty, (and) there’s the education component, so that hopefully through prevention efforts we don’t have 15 cases of co-sleeping deaths,” said Kerkman. Wednesday’s hearing came three days after the year’s 15th co-sleeping death in Milwaukee, although there was no indication that alcohol played a role.
Dr. Jason Jarzembowski from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin testified against the bill, and indicated that he had problems with the focus. “So, when we say we’re going to only prosecute you for co-sleeping if you’re drunk and intoxicated, we’re essentially saying that co-sleeping is okay, as long as you’re not drunk or intoxicated,” Jarzembowski said. He said was concerned that the threat of criminal prosecution would deter parents from being frank about co-sleeping deaths.
Jarzembowski said medical professionals don’t really know how widespread the practice of parents sleeping with their infants is, but it could d be anywhere from 20 to 80 percent. “In terms of improving this bill, I think a preventative focus is much more important,” he said. “I think we’re focusing on a very small subset of deaths. When we look at infant mortality in general, unsafe sleep deaths are a very small proportion of that.”
The committee also heard testimony on a measure designed to decrease the likelihood of adults forgetting that they have infants in their vehicles. It’s a response to incidents of infants being left inside cars for hours with often fatal results.
Child care providers in Wisconsin are already required to call parents or other adult contacts when kids don’t show up, but a bill (AB 443) from Representatives Dianne Hesselbein (D-Madison) and Scott Krug (R-Nekosa) would require they do it within an hour – and keep trying until they reach someone. “I want to keep these kids alive, and that might not happen if we let it go longer than that,” Hesselbein told the Assembly Committee on Children and Families.
But Representative LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), a committee member and former child care provider, said she was concerned that the bill’s requirements could actually pose other safety issues for children, as day care staff would have to focus on making the contacts within the one hour time frame, potentially taken their attention off other kids. Her comments were echoed by several providers who testified against the bill.
Sharlot Bogart, who operates a child care center in Sun Prairie, said the responsibility belongs with parents. “Why is it that we need to be responsible for them, before they get that child to our center? I don’t understand that,” she said. “I will call, but I’m not calling because I don’t trust that parent is not a good parent. I’m calling because I want to find out how that child’s absence is going to effect our center.” Bogart, Silke O’Donnell of Madison, Joan Beck of Dodge County and Renae Henning of Beaver Dam all told committee members that they have specific policies in place for contacting parents when their children have unexplained absences.