When is child neglect not actually child neglect?
On Monday evening, Romilus Duvelsaint left his house on Whitehall Drive in Boynton Beach to run some errands. He left his four-year-old son with his two aunts, Mirlande and Piercina Duvelsaint. Before he shut the door, he shouted to Piercina that he was leaving.
When he returned, a police officer was waiting at the house. The officer told Duvelsaint that the young boy had been found wandering outside in the 45-degree weather, looking for his father. Duvelsaint told the officer, "My son was asleep in my room and Piercina was watching him." The officer explained that Piercina had been sleeping too, and hadn't heard his goodbye.
"Damn, I never waited for a reply," said Duvelsaint. "I just went to the store to get [my son] clothes for the cold weather." Hours later, he was in the Palm Beach County Jail facing charges of child neglect.
The decision to arrest Duvelsaint came down to the responding officer, who thought the child was in danger. The aunts, ages 25 and 28, said they had not been aware that they needed to watch the child, but the officer saw fit to leave him in their custody when his father was sent to spend the night in jail.
So: a parent leaves the house, the other adults in the house aren't watching his kid, and the kid wanders out to see what's going on. Is this a clear-cut case of child neglect, as the officer charged?
"If we get that kind of phone call we investigate for sure," says Mark Riordan with the Florida Department of Children and Families, who was notified of the arrest. "The law is pretty vague on what is the appropriate age to leave a child at home alone. It's actually less complicated when there are adults in the house. There's some presumption that they are approved caregivers."
The charges of child neglect were dropped the next day, and Duvelsaint was released from jail and allowed to return to his son.
Should he have been sent to jail in the first place? "That runs the gamut," says Riordan. "It would have to be the officer's decision."