Marin Independent Journal

Sunday, June 21, 1998

Mom who left 8-year old alone not a "common criminal."

Associated Press

Santa Ana-

How old is old enough to be left home alone?

A three-judge California Court of Appeal panel grappled with that question while reviewing a woman's misdemeanor child abuse conviction for leaving her 8-year-old daughter home alone so she could go to work when she could not find a baby sitter.

These situations are typically handled by social service agencies. But in this case, Michiko Kamiyama was prosecuted as criminal and spent three months in jail.

Because there is no state law that specifies what age a child must be to be left alone at home, the justices were without a basis for their opinions, causing a split among and along emotional and gender lines.

Last month, the panel voted 2-1 to overturn Kamiyama's conviction, noting that although she may have made a bad choice, she was not a criminal.

"To so hold would be to brand thousands of employed couples and single parents as common criminals," wrote Justice Thomas F. Crosby, Jr. in an opinion joined by Justice David G. Sills.

The dissenter and only female on the panel called that reason "appalling and arrogant."

Justice Sheila Sonenshine wrote: "Sadly, the majority takes us back 150 years to a time when children were considered mere chattel of their parents."

The decision, handed down practically unnoticed, does not set state precedent, leaving social workers, parents and employers to continue struggling with and all-too familiar problem. And things aren't expected to get better under new welfare laws requiring parents to work for their benefits.

"This is a Catch-22 for the single parent who has to work," said Michael Riley, Orange County's director of child and family services. "Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of options."

Some cite a lack of child care options, especially during the evening and weekends when many people work.

"There are millions of parents faced every day with these decisions," said Joyce Johnson, spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America. "We're a much more mobile society now and you have situations were there arenít family members nearby, and many people don't even know their neighbors to ask for help."

Kamiyama, 43, moved from Japan in 1987 with her husband who was killed in a car accident shortly before their daughter was born. During her Municipal Court trial, she said she did all she could but was unable to reach anyone to stay with the girl.

Working two jobs-a waitress during the day and a singer in Japanese clubs at night-she said she could not take her daughter to work that night in January 1996 so she left her in their locked townhouse in a gated Huntington Beach community.

Before she left, the girl became upset and threw a tantrum. After she left, a neighbor called the police and their banging on the door scared the girl into a bedroom. Police entered through un unlocked back door and kicked in the bedroom door.

Kamiyama returned at 2 a.m. to a note that said her daughter was taken to Orangewood Children's Home.

The jury found she had inflicted "unjustified mental suffering" on her daughter.

Kamiyama's neighbor, Judy Mendenhall, said the girl has been returned to her mother and still talks about being terrified by the police kicking down the door.