Carla Neems, a month shy of turning 7, was scootering home from school when she was hit by a garbage truck and killed.
A two-year inquest was held, and last week, the coroner, Tim Scott, finally issued his report. He blamed the parents, saying it was “unacceptable” that the girl was allowed to get home without them. Apparently, every heart-wrenching child tragedy, no matter how unpredictable or rare, is the fault of a bad mom or dad.
So here’s the story, which happened in New Zealand. Carla was coming home from school, which is about half a mile from her home. She’d done this daily with her sisters, who are 8 and 10, for a year. On May 2, 2017, she was with an older friend until the very last bit of the trip, which she made by herself. When she scootered in front of the truck, less than a block from her home, the driver didn’t see her. He has been acquitted of reckless driving.
The parents are not getting off that easy.
Coroner Scott declared: “I do not accept that it was acceptable for Carla to go to and from school in the care of her older siblings — and part of the way home alone. The siblings were too young to be vested with that responsibility. Sadly, the confidence that Mr. and Mrs. Neems had about Carla’s road safety was misplaced and flies in the face of what happened.”
The problem is that looking back at any tragedy, it’s easy to say, “If only X hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be mourning today.” That can make it feel as if X is so inherently and — in retrospect — inevitably dangerous that it should NEVER be allowed. When the coroner says the parents’ trust in Carla “flies in the face of what happened,” he is saying they should have known this was going to happen.
This is not only the cruelest possible twist of the knife, it is also wrong. If a child falls down the stairs and dies, does that “fly in the face” of parents who thought it was OK to raise kids in a two-story house? Didn’t they realize how dangerous stairs can be? How dare they have allowed their kids to walk up and down!
They dared because, of course, there is no such thing as a completely risk-free life. It is unfair and cruel to blame parents for trusting the odds — for not living every second as if an anvil were about to fall on their head.
And yet, the New Zealand news site Stuff has praised the coroner’s declaration, saying “maybe he felt a need to draw a line in so much unnecessary death and shock people out of their complacency.”
Who is complacent when it comes to the death of a child?
In fact, we are so completely shaken by it that we have to immediately turn it into a lesson — a light, a blessing in disguise! — so that we don’t have to stare into the abyss that is cruel fate. And that is exactly how the Stuff editorial proceeds: “Carla’s death is not meaningless; it has inspired an honest assessment of risk that will hopefully save many lives.”
Perhaps that is true, in terms of the garbage truck design. Assessors came to realize the trucks have a blind spot and have since worked to eradicate it. They’ve also made the trucks even more visible.
But stating that only irresponsible parents allow their kids any independence ushers in a society that treats children as if they are always on the brink of death. Parents are required to take on the job of prison wardens/ICU nurses to keep their flight-risk/near-death children under constant surveillance.
That’s a hallmark of panic, not prudence.