A Boston health official has filed a complaint alleging that a Boston police sergeant wrongfully reported her for possible child neglect after she accidentally locked her 11-month-old son inside her air-conditioned car.
Nikysha Harding, 36, said she was picking up her son, Nicholas, from his Roxbury day-care provider on July 10, and used her automatic starter to switch on the car and cool it off for the boy.
The starter only works when the doors are locked, and Harding said that after she buckled her son into his car seat and shut the door, she realized she had left her keys in the car. Harding said she immediately called 911, and implored police and firefighters to free her son.
They got him out, but what followed is a dispute between a mother who believes police overstepped their bounds because she is black, and a department that says it must take seriously any hint of parental neglect.
Harding, who heads the Boston Public Health Commission’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, filed a complaint last Monday with the Boston Police Department Internal Affairs Division against Sergeant Sean Martin, alleging that she was racially profiled. Boston police officials stand behind the officers’ decision, calling it a reaction to a disturbing sight: a child locked inside a car on a hot day.
“The actions of the officers were warranted, and they always encourage an overreaction of this type when it comes to a child being locked in a car,” said Sergeant Michael McCarthy, a department spokesman. “We want our officers to make that notification. No question.”
But Harding said it should have been immediately clear that she was a distraught parent who quickly realized her mistake.
Police said in their report that Harding’s day-care provider told a black, Spanish-speaking officer that Harding had locked her son in her car and left him to go inside the day-care center, which is on the second floor, and only realized her mistake when she returned to the car.
But the day-care provider and another witness told the Globe that Harding never left the child alone. The provider, who asked that her name be withheld in the Globe because she feared retaliation, said in an interview that she never spoke to police except to give them her name.
“I never talked to anyone,” she said. “If I had, I never would have said what they said I did.”
A Globe reporter told McCarthy of the day-care provider’s allegations and provided her name.
“Officers base their decisions on what they’re told at the time,” said McCarthy. “She told the officer that Ms. Harding left the baby unattended while she came to say goodbye to her. Why she wants to change that now, that’s something you’d have to ask her.”
But the day-care provider insisted she never gave such an account. In a signed statement written in Spanish that Harding filed along with her complaint, the day-care provider said that on July 10, she was outside the day-care center, which she runs out of her Roxbury apartment. Harding was parked in front of the building. She placed Nicholas in the car seat, closed the door, and immediately panicked.
“In that moment,” the day-care provider wrote, “she realized what happened.”
The two women flagged down another mother, Yessenia Pena, who had just started driving away from the center.
“It happened in seconds,” said Pena. “She never went in [to the day-care center].”
Harding called police on the day-care provider’s cellphone, according to the statement, and police and firefighters arrived immediately. Firefighters freed Nicholas by breaking the window of her car. The child, weeping and visibly frightened, was unharmed.
“Mrs. Harding, throughout that whole process, never left her car, not for one minute,” wrote the day-care provider. “I still had two children that needed rides, so I was there the whole time in front of the building.”
According to the police report, soon after Nicholas was freed, two officers, one white and one black, told Harding they had to file a report of possible abuse or neglect with the Department of Children and Families, a report known as a 51A.
Harding said she was incredulous and asked to speak to their supervisor.
Martin, who is white, approached her, and Harding said she told him she believed race was a factor in how police were treating her.
“If I were a white lady in Hyde Park, this would not happen,” Harding said, according to the police report. “Because I’m black in this neighborhood, you guys are going to file a 51A.”
Harding’s complaint says that Martin’s response was: “ ‘You know what? Now I’m going to file a 51A.’ ” That statement is not in the police report.
Harding’s Internal Affairs complaint asks for an apology and an investigation into what happened.
“Sergeant Martin frivolously filed a 51A against me in bad faith solely because I am a black woman,” reads the complaint. “His unjust and unfair treatment towards me caused me deep emotional suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, and shame.”
McCarthy said Police Commissioner William Evans and the department’s Office of the Legal Advisor were aware of the complaint and had read the police report, and found the decision to file the 51A “more than justified.”
McCarthy said race has nothing to do with an officer’s decision to report a parent to DCF.
None of the officers on the scene has a disciplinary record, he said.
About 38 children each year die in the United States after being left in hot cars, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
McCarthy said that police are trained to err on the side of caution when considering whether to file a 51A. The report does not indicate wrongdoing, he said. It is a mechanism to initiate an investigation by DCF into what officers believe could be the result of neglect or abuse.
“The officers’ response, and what their observations are at the time, is that the child is locked in a car on a hot day,” he said.
Records from DCF provided by Harding show that there were two 51As filed in the July 10 case. The identities of the officials who filed the reports are redacted on each. One 51A reflects the police report and states that the mother left the child in the car unattended.
Harding believes the second 51A was filed by EMS workers after they were summoned by police.
The second 51A states that the person who filed it “believes that there is a miscommunication between what the day-care provider stated to police and what the provider told the reporter,” and believes “it was an accident.” The person who filed the second 51A ascribes the misunderstanding to a language barrier.
McCarthy said the officer who interviewed the day-care provider speaks Spanish.
Harding said she did not file a complaint about the second 51A because she believes it was prompted by the filing of the first 51A.
An EMS spokeswoman declined to comment on whether EMS workers filed the second 51A.
Both reports were “screened out,” said DCF spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen. Screening out happens, Isaksen said in an e-mail, when “the report does not involve a child or the allegations are not within the Department’s mandate, and/or there is no reasonable cause to believe that a child[ren] has been or may have been abused or neglected.” She did not elaborate.
Boston EMS took Nicholas to Boston Medical Center, where medical records provided by Harding show that caregivers found nothing wrong.
“His mother is appropriate, with reasonable story and quick response to him being locked in the car,” the records read. “Social worker met with family and agreed that no need to file 51A at this time.”
Harding said she felt police dismissed her as a stereotype: a neglectful black mother collecting state checks and driving an expensive car.
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, said police working in communities like Roxbury are generally sensitive to racial issues. The situation, he said, does not sound like a straightforward case of racist officers targeting minorities.
But Nolan said that if “the mother of the child were perceived by the police as ‘hostile,’ ‘belligerent,’ ‘displaying a bad attitude,’ . . . they might be conceivably more inclined to file the 51A.”
Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana studies, law, and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist on the role of race in the child welfare system, said that black parents are more likely to be reported for child abuse or neglect to child welfare authorities than white parents. Studies have shown, she said, that racial bias plays a role in this discrepancy.
“The sense that this black mother has that she’s being treated this way, it’s not made up,” said Roberts. “It’s not to say that the studies can prove racial bias in this particular case, but it does give some credence and credibility to what this mother is saying.”