Every parent has probably considered it at least once: making that quick dash into the store while the kids are comfortably asleep in their car seats.
Dr. Bobbie Sweitzer did just that, leaving her two young girls locked in her Porsche while she dropped off a roll of film. And did she ever pay for that decision.
She found herself accused of child neglect, an allegation that took her eight months and $15,000 in legal fees to beat.
“It never entered my mind that I was doing something wrong,” Sweitzer said Wednesday.
It was July 2 and the Massachusetts General Hospital anesthesiologist was taking her daughters, then 1 and 4-1/2, to a free puppet show at the mall not far from their home.
On the way, Sweitzer decided to drop off the film at a Sam’s Club store in suburban Natick. The girls were sleeping soundly when she pulled into the parking lot.
She cracked the car windows, locked the doors, activated the alarm system and ran into the store. Sweitzer said the weather was cool and the children were out of her view for only about 20 or 30 seconds.
That was apparently all it took for another shopper to see the girls and call police. By the time officers arrived, Sweitzer was already gone.
When she got home, there were two messages from a Natick detective wanting to discuss the “incident” at Sam’s Club. She called police and found out she had been reported for leaving her children alone. And then the officer read the doctor her Miranda rights.
She hired a lawyer and then took a family trip. She and her husband returned home to find a letter from the Massachusetts Department of Social Services saying there was enough evidence to support a child neglect citation.
Although DSS never filed criminal charges, the agency did say that Sweitzer posed a “moderate” to “severe” risk to her children. Abuse allegations remain on file until the youngest child turns 18 and further allegations could lead to the children being taken away.
“As a physician, I’m well aware that hot cars can cause brain damage and dehydration,” Sweitzer said, but social workers treated her “as if I was a 16-year-old drug-addicted mother who hadn’t thought twice about her children’s safety.”
“I was horrified, I was angry,” she said, calling the experience Kafkaesque. “I felt like I had woken up in ‘The Trial.”’
DSS spokeswoman Lorraine Carli said cases like these are difficult for the department.
“We always walk that fine line of the need to protect children and balancing the unwarranted state intervention into families,” Carli said.
She noted that cars in which children were left have been hijacked, hit and towed, and a 3-month-old boy died in the state two years ago after being left in a hot car.
Sweitzer never imagined her children would be taken from her, but she was terrified nonetheless, especially because of her reputation.
“I don’t think I’d want to go to a doctor who’s been accused of child abuse,” Sweitzer said. “I was willing to do anything that it would take to clear my name.”
What it took was lawyers, a hired psychologist, several character witnesses and $15,000 to fight a Jan. 21 hearing.
On Tuesday, the same day The Boston Globe was finishing a report on the case, Sweitzer learned the social services agency was reversing its finding and expunging the allegation from her record.
The agency ultimately decided that the case “didn’t rise to the threshold of neglect,” Carli said.
Sweitzer said she could afford to clear her name. But what about those who can’t?
Said her lawyer, Robert Sherman: “Unless you’re willing to spend thousands of dollars to fight it, you get lost and chewed up by the system.”