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Close Call: Help Instead Of Blame When A Young Child Wanders Away

A boy brings flowers to put beside a statue of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Monday, May 30, 2016. A gorilla named Harambe was killed by a special zoo response team on Saturday after a 3-year-old boy slipped into an exhibit and it was concluded his life was in danger. (John Minchillo/AP)
A boy brings flowers to put beside a statue of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Monday, May 30, 2016. A gorilla named Harambe was killed by a special zoo response team on Saturday after a 3-year-old boy slipped into an exhibit and it was concluded his life was in danger. (John Minchillo/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

I almost didn’t see her, this wisp of a girl in a ruffled white dress. She toddled into the street as I drove my car near a Catholic church in Lexington. I pulled my car ahead and stopped.

“Stay here,” I said to my 8-year-old son who was sitting in his booster seat reading. “I need to go get that little girl.”

He nodded. From his vantage point, he had not noticed the girl. I ran back several yards and swooped the toddler into my arms. She just looked at me and shook her foot. Her shoe fell off. I slipped it back on.

This happened Saturday, the same day a 3-year-old boy was making news in Cincinnati for falling into a moat surrounding the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla exhibit.

My heart was racing, but I spoke to the girl softly. She only began to fuss quietly a few minutes later when a woman ran up to us. Now, two strangers were looking at her. This woman was a neighbor and had noticed the girl walking along down the driveway near their apartment building. She thought she knew where the toddler girl lived and said she would see if she could find her mother. She ran into a nearby building while I watched the child.

Still holding the girl, I walked to my car and asked my son to come stand with me in the shade. It was a hot day, and I needed to protect this stranger’s child and my own.

Another woman pulled up in a SUV and said she had noticed the girl, too. She couldn’t believe the toddler was walking around unsupervised. She offered to call the police as minutes ticked by. What parent would leave a toddler unattended for this long?

This happened Saturday, the same day a 3-year-old boy was making news in Cincinnati for falling into a moat surrounding the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla exhibit. On social media, people criticized the zoo and the boy’s parents. Some were upset that zoo staff had killed a 450-pound gorilla that stood over the boy. Others were enraged that the parents had let the boy escape from their oversight.




Ah, how easy it is to judge other parents when a child’s life is endangered. I know. Anger was one of my first reactions when I spotted the girl step into the street. She was so tiny, barely big enough for me to see from my car. Why wasn’t someone holding her hand? Mixed with anger was fear and what ifs. What if I hadn’t seen her and she darted into a car’s path? What if my car had struck her?

It was probably only 10 minutes, but it seemed like an hour had passed by the time a woman came running up to me. She identified herself as the girl’s mother. Her daughter was 20-months-old, the youngest of six children living in the family’s first-floor apartment. The mother said the door's security lock was broken, and that her daughter must have opened the door and walked out. The girl went from my arms into her mother’s embrace.

The girl's mother never thanked me. She just said, 'I’m sorry.'

A police car then arrived. The officer spoke to us for only a minute. Assured the little girl was safe, he drove on.

By that time, my anger had dissipated. I had no idea what the mother was juggling when her little girl found her way to the door. I can remember a time my son got away from both me and my husband. Thankfully, that happened in a grocery store, and our son was 3 and verbal. A store employee quickly reunited us.

The little girl was not yet old enough to tell me her name or age. She had mostly gazed at me and my son with curiosity. When her mother appeared, she cracked her first sliver of a smile after my son showed her a balloon he had just gotten at a community event in our town.

The girl's mother never thanked me. She just said, “I’m sorry.” I cannot judge this mother, though my first instinct was to act as her judge and jury. Instead, most of all, what I feel is gratitude — gratitude that I picked up the girl before it was too late. I would want someone to do the same for my child.

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Linda K. Wertheimer Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Linda K. Wertheimer is the author of Faith Ed., and an education reporter

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