Last month, a boy climbed into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in the staff having to make the difficult but ultimately correct decision to kill a gorilla in order to save the child.   More recently, an alligator killed a boy in Florida while he and his family played in a man-made lake. Many commentators have expressed the opinion that the parents of both children are to blame, and that the mother in Cincinnati should be held criminally responsible for the death of Harambe the gorilla, because she failed to properly monitor her child.

I will be the first to state that parents in America need to step up their game and pay more attention to their children, but I was relieved that no charges would be filed against the mother in Ohio.  Parents make mistakes, even the best-intentioned ones.   I know from personal experience.

Two years ago, on a late spring evening, my family and I were eating dinner.   Five of us were at the table, but our oldest son was in the playroom at the front of the house.  He has autism, and although in almost everything else we hold him to the same standards as his siblings, when it comes to dinnertime we let him come and go from the table.  (There are many battles we wage to further his development.   This is not one of them).   We could hear him playing and singing along to the show he was watching.  As my wife and I got caught up on our respective days and coaxed the younger two to eat, we eventually noticed that it had gotten quiet in the playroom.  (As a parent, you want noise to stop, yet become anxious as soon as it does…)   I went to check and noticed he wasn’t there.  Nothing unusual at this point.  He’s probably upstairs.

After checking his room and the backyard, we began to get worried.   We started roaming the house and calling for him, more and more urgently.   That’s when we noticed that the window screen in the playroom was ajar.  Despite a device we installed on the window to prevent it from opening too far, he was able to squeeze through the space and pop open the screen.

I suggested that my wife keep searching the house while I scanned around outside.   He was not in the front or side yard.  Not in the neighbor’s backyard.  I have experienced the sickening feeling of dread before, but nothing like this. It was as if I had swallowed a kettlebell, juxtaposed with the light-headed panic arcing through my brain.

While my wife got on the phone to call police and ask for friends to help search, I began driving around the neighborhood in an ever-widening spiral until I was convinced I had surpassed a radius he could have reasonably traversed in that period of time.  No one I stopped to talk with had seen a young boy walking on his own.

As I drove around, multiple thoughts took up an uneasy co-existence in my head.  First, I was confident we could find him.  We’d always lived an unremarkable life.  These types of crises just didn’t exist in our world.  Second was a horrible brainstorm of all the possible scenarios in which my son could have found himself (lost, injured, god-forbid abducted).  And third was a selfish, back-of-the-mind understanding that if we didn’t find him, we would never again have a day of happiness for the rest of our lives.

No court fine or prison time or social-media parent-shaming can compare to the horror and anguish the parents in Ohio and Florida experienced as they helplessly watched their children in danger.  The father who had to fight an alligator in a vain attempt to save his son will probably never be the same man again.

We were lucky.  Our story had a happy ending.  We found our son, after a half-hour of panicked searching, in our neighbor’s house.  They were out running errands, but left the backdoor unlocked.   Apparently he really wanted to play their piano and use their bathroom.   We have since made significant modifications to the security of our windows and doors.

Parents make mistakes.  The mother at the zoo took her eye off her child.  The father in Florida clearly had no idea the lake at a Disney resort might contain a wild animal.  These were clearly acts of omission, not commission.  This is not a case of parents purposefully abusing or neglecting a child.  They did not drive drunk with the child in the backseat, or leave him in a parked car on a hot day in order to shop in peace.

Let’s leave these parents alone and allow them to deal with their grief and trauma.  Had my story turned out differently, I would have wanted the same.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.

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