Southfield— Motorists accused of driving drunk with children in the car, like the Southfield woman whose daughter passed a note in February to a bank teller seeking help, have drawn attention to what authorities say is an underreported problem that puts hundreds of kids at risk every year in Michigan.
Child endangerment charges can be levied when an impaired person drives with a child under age 16. But because the young victims are often either unaware or incapable of knowing what’s happening, or reluctant or too fearful to report it, most cases never lead to arrests. Even the state Department of Human Services can’t say how often reported offenses occur across Michigan.
Prosecutors, police and child advocates agree any estimate of child endangerment is low because the crime is so underreported.
“I’m surprised we haven’t been presented with more this year, since this is more frequent than people think,” said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, with 31 cases reported this year, compared to 107 in 2010 and 92 in 2009.
In Oakland County, there were 95 child endangerment cases in 2010, up from 67 in 2009.
“These are not cases where someone has just had a glass of wine with dinner and made the mistake of driving,” said Oakland Prosecutor Jessica Cooper. “These are people who have decided to drive while drunk on other occasions or on drugs. Some of the blood-alcohol content (BAC) levels are very high: like .17 and .24.”
A driver is considered intoxicated with a .08 blood-alcohol level.
In Macomb County, case tracking software doesn’t enable prosecutors to compile statistics on specific charges, but “we do not, as a matter of policy, reduce charges on cases involving child abuse or endangerment,” said Prosecutor Eric Smith.
“The heartbreaking facts of cases show us all too clearly that law enforcement’s first duty is to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” he said.
Latanya Evans, 49, is facing charges related to the February incident in which she allegedly left her daughter at a Southfield bank. Police say the girl passed a note to a teller saying her mom was drunk and refused to get back in the car. Her daughter has been placed in the temporary custody of her father. Evans, who admits she had had an ongoing drinking problem for nine years, could lose custody of her daughter. It was her third child endangerment case dating back to an April 2005 conviction. She is also charged with driving on a suspended license.
Oakland County’s 95 cases in the past year reveal more than 100 children were placed at risk in 30 known communities. And defendants in such cases were about equally split by gender, 49 men and 46 women.
Many are repeat offenders of both child endangerment and drunken-driving laws. Some were arrested for being high on drugs such as marijuana, morphine, oxycodone and other substances.
Police say some child endangerment cases are filed but later dismissed for other offenses, such as a recent Auburn Hills case in which a 3-year-old girl was found unsupervised inside the Great Lakes Crossing Outlets. Her father was found passed out in the parking lot, where he had gone to “charge his cell phone.” The child was returned to the custody of his estranged wife and he was charged with marijuana possession.
First offenders likely face fines, a few days in jail and probation, along with license suspensions, but can be sentenced to a year in jail. Repeat offenders could be looking at steeper sentences and fines.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving views it as a form of child abuse, MADD state director Janette Kolodge said.
“MADD supports the enhancement of sanctions against convicted drunk drivers when the offender was driving with a minor child in the vehicle,” Kolodge said. Kolodge quoted MADD national statistics that underscore potentially deadly damage such drivers can cause. In 2004, for example, 442 children died nationally in alcohol-related crashes; about half of these children — 220 — were riding with an impaired driver.
Nearly 35 percent of the 95 Oakland cases are scofflaws, like Evans, their licenses revoked by the state because of driving offenses. One even provided police with a forged drivers’ license.
Oak Park topped all Oakland County communities with 13 child endangerment reports this past year, followed by Troy with seven and Auburn Hills, Pontiac, Southfield with six each.
“I don’t know why we have more,” Oak Park Police Lt. Mike Pousak said. “It’s not like we have a special detail out looking for drivers endangering their children. But our officers are trained to stop motorists whose driving raises suspicions. And when children are at risk, they move to remove that risk.”
Pousak recalled one woman who was arrested twice for child endangerment within a few weeks in October and November of 2009.
In both cases the woman was found slumped unconscious behind the steering wheel, the car engine running and transmission in drive with her foot pressed down on the brake. In one case, she blacked out at an intersection; in another, on a resident’s front lawn where her car ended up. In both cases, her son was in a child’s seat in the rear seat.
Oak Park officers typically arrest such drivers, place the child with a responsible sober relative while the parent is in custody, and report the incident to Child Protective Services.
“We take drunk drivers off the street all the time,” Pousak said. “The only difference is these are drunk drivers putting children at risk. Adults endangering children are looking at more than a 93-day misdemeanor they face for driving drunk by themselves.”
A first offense for child endangerment in Michigan is a misdemeanor with fines of $200 to $1,000 plus court costs and 5 days to 1 year in jail.
A second offense of child endangerment within 7 years or three within 10 years is a felony. Fines are $500-$5,000 plus court costs and 12-60 months imprisonment and 30 days to 1 year with community service; or probation with imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 30 days or more than 1 year and community service.