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Esther J. Cepeda

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Help Fellow Latinos Understand: You Don't Leave Kids Unattended in Cars!

Posted: 02/27/09 03:46 PM ET

Well, thank goodness little Gael Dominguez is home safe and sound.

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If you hadn't heard, last Sunday morning four-year-old Gael was sitting in the back seat of his family's SUV, that his daddy had left running in front of their house for "just a minute" on Chicago's Northwest Side, when a thief stole the van - with Gael in it.

I can just imagine the alarm the thief must have felt when he realized there was a small person in the car he'd helped himself to. Certainly not as bad as the feeling dad, 24-year-old Javier Dominguez, had when he walked out and realized what had happened - and then when he had to tell Gael's mom, Elizabeth Cruz. It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it.

The thief abandoned the van about a mile away from the family home with Gael inside who, according to his mom Elizabeth, had hidden between two child seats in the back and exchanged no words with the driver, according to Monday's story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Really? Does that mean he had not been securely fastened into his own child seat - or merely that he was a master at unbuckling himself from it? Shake your head wearily.

Latinos don't get it when it comes to child vehicle safety - they just don't. O.K., yes, not all Hispanics, obviously, but too many. Gael Dominguez's excellent adventure was just the latest in a string of incidents.

We can go back to July when Ricardo Gonzales, a 35-year-old Midlothian, Illinois man, was charged with misdemeanor child endangerment for locking his two-year-old and five-year-old daughters in a makeshift cage in his pickup truck (read my column here).

Back on November 28, 2008 seven-month-old Osiel Hernandez was whisked to a hospital to be checked out after spending about 12 hours inside a Dodge Caravan which was stolen when his mom had left it running - with him inside it - at a factory in Skokie as she ran into pick up materials for her job.

There are a million reasons: from ignorance of this country's laws, to poverty, to desperation. I'd insert a really good quote from a Latino public health specialist here if any of them had wanted to talk about this disturbing issue. But as one Latino community leader told me off the record, "that's one of those things you're not going to be able to get too many people to talk about." No kidding!

My take: all of these people were poor, relatively recent arrivals to the U.S. (and therefore ignorant of the laws against leaving children unattended in cars), monolingual (all used translators to communicate to police and media), and probably scared of police because of immigration-related anxiety.

And all those like them - in those same life situations - need our help.

It's not a matter of taking sides over the immigration issue and it's not about whether parents "should" know better - do a Google search, plenty of U.S.-born citizens make the bone-headed move of leaving their kids in cars, they're just usually not scared to call police - it's about raising awareness in communities.

Simple to say and hard to do because it seems overwhelming, but don't let it be. Talk about these incidents with people, then suspend your desire to judge and reach out to someone who might need a friendly piece of advice about securing their kids in car seats and not leaving them alone in the car.

I talked to Juan Valenzuela, an Illinois State Police Sergeant and Public Information Officer and a designated officer for Hispanic Community Affairs:

"We don't keep statistics on race about who leaves kids in the car unattended," Sgt. Valenzuela told me, "but we do do presentations in local communities where there is a need."

"We can present to specific groups, like at the Mexican Consulate and at immigrant welcoming centers where we teach about our laws. We can be topic-specific when providing presentations," Valenzuela said. "If it's Latino-related I would provide them but we also have 21 other education police officers in the state."

"If anyone wants to set up a presentation they can reach me directly at valenzj@isp.state.il.us or by calling me at 312-814-8368."

His final words on the subject: "We recommend nobody leaves a vehicle with a child in it or with a key in the ignition even if there is no child present and that goes across all lines - never leave a child in a car for any amount of time. Regardless."

 

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