10-year-old in dog cage on turnpike: “bad mom” or pop lynching?

A 10-year-old in a dog cage in the back of a pickup: Yes, it sounds like a “bad mom,” but the pop lynching by viral video may do more damage than she did.

A couple put their 10-year-old in a dog cage in the back of a pickup truck and drove home on the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Grandma’s house over the Memorial Day weekend. Photos of the crime captured by alarmed drivers went viral early this week and ... we have the latest case of mom bashing.

“Bad moms” are a staple of the pop-lynching-by-social-media phenomenon – and it’s sometimes heartbreaking to see the victims that are created on all sides of a “crime” publicized without context or detail. The Pennsylvania couple is being ripped across the web as “horrible” parents, and will probably find themselves pictured alongside Huffington Post’s “Questionable Parenting” mug shots of parents who did things like glue a toddler’s hands to a wall, fit kids with shock collars, and injected babies with heroin.

It's easy to ask: What the heck were they thinking? Were they thinking? Watching 29-year-old Abbey Carlson, the mom, drift in and out of tearfulness during a TV interview while nervously holding a cigarette as she and her boyfriend dug themselves deeper into socially incorrect ground trying to explain themselves is painful if you believe  – as I do, on first glance – that they made a bad judgment, meant no harm, and are not criminals. And there’s absolutely no evidence the kid was locked in the cage unwillingly. The family has said, plausibly, she wanted to leave the cab of the truck and ride with the family dog because she felt bad that it was whimpering. (I'm surprised that animal lovers haven't weighed in, too, with the abuse it is to keep a dog in a cage in the open bed of a truck.)

Yes, Ms. Carlson and her boyfriend, Thomas Fishinger, admit that they let the child ride in the back of a moving pickup. Yes, it’s against the law in Pennsylvania for a child under 18 to ride in the open bed of a truck. But they were charged with child endangerment, not the traffic offense, according to a state police spokesman. (Millvale, Pa. police, who made the arrest, did not return phone calls, but the state police explained the charges.) The sensationalizing factor in the whole incident is not illegal, in itself: A child in a dog cage. It looked outrageous in photos online – and in combination with the traffic offense, was obviously part of the cause for endangerment concerns. (I admit, it makes me wonder if I should purge our photo albums that include evidence of our daughter happily locking herself in our dog’s kennel through the years – and that's just one bad judgment among probably many others our photo albums reveal.)

Context does help mitigate – though not absolve –  a bad decision. 

Citations for driving with passengers of any age in the open bed of a truck are not exactly unusual in Pennsylvania: 152 citations were issued across the state since May 2010, an average of slightly more than one a week, says State Trooper Adam Reed, who adds that the state law allows adults to ride in the back of pickups going under 35 M.P.H. and kids to ride there anytime while on farms. Kids in dog cages aren’t part of the data stream, but – again – that’s not illegal.

It’s especially interesting if you’re old enough to remember just a generation back when the same kind of “criminal” behavior was considered typical, unremarkable parenting. I remember my wind-whipped hair making my cheeks sore as I rode in the back of my Dad’s pickup as a kid of 8, 9, 10 in the 1960s – there was the usual warning to stay seated, but no second thoughts about kids riding back there. 

And other parenting choices, too, would be more than frowned on today: standing up in the front seat of the car beside my Mom or Dad when we went places;  piling half a dozen kids in the back seat for group outings. We did have seat belts, we just didn’t use them. Also, on long trips we’d be sealed in the air-conditioned car with Mom smoking Kent cigarettes and Dad smoking stinky Italian stogies – just like most of our friends. And, no one ever pointed a finger when Mom left us in the car when she’d run in for groceries. 

The Pennsylvania couple admit they made a bad parenting choice, and there will be legal judgment. But the sharp public judgment will echo punishingly – without context or explanation – in cyberspace forever. Barring new discoveries that the family has done something else illegal, why not cut them some slack for a mistake they will always rue? The pop lynching by viral video may do more damage than the parents did.

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