President's Message — January 2019

By Jeff Van Wagenen

Last month, I was helping my son study for his driver’s permit test. In every study guide, and on almost every practice test, there was a reference to California Vehicle Code section 15620. The “Unattended Child in Motor Vehicle Safety Act” provides that:

(a)     A parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for a child who is 6 years of age or younger may not leave that child inside a motor vehicle without being subject to the supervision of a person who is 12 years of age or older, under either of the following circumstances:

(1) Where there are conditions that present a significant risk to the child’s health or safety.

(2) When the vehicle’s engine is running or the vehicle’s keys are in the ignition, or both.

(b)     A violation of subdivision (a) is an infraction punishable by a fine of one hundred dollars ($100)…

According to the DMV, the purpose of this law was to protect the well-being of young occupants inside a motor vehicle and to create a world where no one ever leaves a child alone in a car. To drive the point home, there are countless public service announcements aired across the state every year. (Not to mention the education of every new driver.)

While this law makes sense to all of us, we know that there must have been a tragic story that made its passage necessary. What you may not know, is that that tragedy took place here in Western Riverside County.

Kaitlyn Russell was born on February 8, 2000. She died six months later on August 15, 2000. Kaitlyn lived in Corona with her family. She died alone in the Lake Matthews area when her babysitter left her in a van on a hot summer day.

After Kaitlyn’s sad death, her mother, Tammy, redirected her family’s pain and anger into establishing a nonprofit, “4 R Kids’ Sake.” Tammy spoke locally, at statewide conferences, and on national television about preventing such deaths and gave tips to save children’s lives. She also pursued legislation. When asked about her motivation, Tammy’s answer was simple:

“Kaitlyn’s death was absolutely, 100%, preventable. It should never have happened. It is my goal to affect change in legislation and to bring about public awareness to this type of tragedy. If I succeed in saving one child’s life and keeping one family intact and free from this emotionally devastating pain and suffering, I will have accomplished what I set out to do — I will have done one last thing for Kaitlyn.”

As a result of Tammy’s advocacy, Governor Gray Davis signed “Kaitlyn’s Law” into effect one year after her death.

In this month’s issue of the Riverside Lawyer magazine you will read about a number of new laws that will impact our lives in 2019. It is important to remember that behind each of these, and the countless others that are not covered in this issue, there is a story. And, while we hope that those stories are not as tragic as Kaitlyn’s, the fact that there is a reason that made each of these laws necessary is one that we cannot ignore. Moreover, we must recognize that each new piece of legislation travelled the path from dream to reality because there was an advocate hard at work behind the scenes. In a world that can feel as if “the powers that be” spend their time complaining and blaming, instead of legislating, these real world reminders that a voice can be heard and that our actions can lead to tangible results is refreshing.

As the new year begins, resolve to become more involved in our political process, no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum. The next time you think “there oughta be a law,” don’t stop there. Take the next step. Then take the one after, and then the one after that. Some of us belong to associations organized to advocate for change. Others will begin as the lone voice. Work with our local representatives at the city, county, state, and federal levels – they work for you and they are great partners. If you can’t find a foothold with a local politician, keep looking for an ally. (Did I forget to mention that Kaitlyn’s Law was carried by a State Senator from San Mateo?)

Whatever you do, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has” (Anthropologist Margaret Mead and/or The West Wing’s President Josiah Bartlett).

Jeff Van Wagenen is the Assistant County Executive Officer for Public Safety, working with, among others, the District Attorney’s Office, the Law Offices of the Public Defender, and the Courts.

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