Queens Couple Charged under Federal Responsible Families Act
by Judith Weizner
A thirty-eight- year-old Queens public school music teacher and his thirty-six-year-old wife face heavy fines and the likelihood of a jail sentence if they are convicted under the recently enacted Federal Responsible Families Act (FRFA).
John and Pamela Kidder, the first defendants to be prosecuted under FRFA, have been charged with willfully and callously endangering family members under their supervision. Because Mrs. Kidder has a record of similar convictions within the last three years, penalties could be increased if prosecutors prove a pattern of willful disregard for human life.
Three years ago, Mrs. Kidder, the solo string bass player in the Broadway musical The Love Buggy, was arrested while driving with her two small sons in the front seat, a violation of the Federal Automotive Safety for the Next Generation Act, which requires children under the age of twelve to be seated in the back to protect them from possible injury should the air bags deploy. She contested the charge, arguing that her 1985 car had no air bags, and that the children, both of whom had been wearing seat belts, would not have been safe in the back next to her bass, which could shift and injure them in case of an accident.
Informing Mrs. Kidder that the law made no provision for cars without air bags, Family Court Judge Harold Childe fined her $2,000 and ordered her to attend four weeks of nightly sessions at the Federal Automotive Safety Practices Clinic. He advised her that her conviction would be downgraded to a six-point traffic violation and the $3000-a-year surcharge on her insurance reduced by half if her record remained clean for three years. He emphasized that if she allowed any child under the age of twelve in the front seat she would be re-arrested and jailed.
Because the sessions at the Federal Automotive Safety Practices Clinic conflicted with her job, Mrs. Kidder appealed for an alternate sentence, but the court ruled that the law did not permit any leeway. Mrs. Kidder hired a substitute to replace her in the pit for the duration of the course.
Not wishing to run the risk of further legal troubles, the Kidders took out a second mortgage and bought a station wagon in which they could seat the children in the back and load the bass in the well behind the rear seat. By now, Mrs. Kidder had given birth to their third child, a daughter, who was born three weeks premature and required a brief hospital stay. Within a month the baby was home and Mrs. Kidder went back to work
One afternoon while practicing, Mrs. Kidder discovered that a seam on her bass had come unglued. Since she did not have to work that night, she hastily arranged to take the instrument to a repair shop in Queens. While loading the two older children, the bass and the baby into the car for the first time, she quickly discovered that with the bass already in its berth she could not secure the baby seat facing backwards as required by law. By now late for her appointment at the repair shop, she hurriedly fastened the baby seat facing forward between her two older children, and started off. Two blocks from the repair shop a traffic agent pulled her over, and once again she found herself before Judge Childe to answer one count of imperiling an infant and two counts of setting a bad example to minor children.
With the aid of a model, she showed that the seating and cargo configuration of her station wagon conformed to the government’s specifications, but explained that once the bass was in place, it occupied part of the space needed to fasten the baby seat facing the rear. She demonstrated how she had secured the baby seat between the two other children, emphasizing that if she had faced the seat backwards the instrument would have been dangerously close to the baby’s head.
When Judge Childe asked why she had not waited for her husband to come home before leaving for the repair shop, she explained that it had been necessary to close the seam immediately, before her next performance, as an open seam on a string instrument causes a buzz and diffuses the focus of the intended sound. As corroboration, she cited a book on the proper care, transportation and repair of string basses, as well as a letter from the music director of The Love Buggy indicating that all musicians are required to keep their instruments in perfect condition at all times.
Judge Childe ruled that the law made no mention of string basses but was very clear on the placement of baby seats. He fined her $17,000, directed her to perform forty hours a week of community service in the Child Automotive Accident Rehabilitation Unit of the West Side Medical Administration Hospital and ordered her to install a rack on the roof of the station wagon for transporting the bass.
The Kidders installed the rack, adapting it to the shape of the bass, and added a wind-deflecting, waterproof shell to protect the instrument. One night, as Mrs. Kidder returned home from the theater, she hit a pothole, breaking an axle. The bass came unmoored and slid into the street in front of a police car, which swerved into the path of an ambulance. Mrs. Kidder was charged with precipitating an accident through the use of an unauthorized mode of transportation for a parcel over three feet long, fined three thousand dollars, and ordered to pay for the repairs to the police car, the ambulance, three parked cars and a telephone pole. Owing to her unorthodox method of transporting the bass, Mrs. Kidder’s instrument insurance company rejected her claim and cancelled the policy.
For some time, Mr. Kidder had been giving clarinet lessons at home in the evening, and now Mrs. Kidder found a part-time telemarketing job that she could do at home during the day.
The family was steadily paying off its debts, and things were going well enough so that when Mrs. Kidder’s elderly parents visited at Christmas, the Kidders decided that as a special treat, the whole family, except for the baby, would attend the Christmas Eve matinee performance of The Love Buggy, with each of the two boys allowed to invite a friend. The bass was secured in its new trailer, the four children and Mrs. Kidder’s father buckled themselves into the back seats, and Mr. Kidder drove, with Mrs. Kidder and her mother riding in front.
At the approach to the toll booth on the Throgs Neck Bridge, a police officer motioned them to the side. After determining that Mrs. Kidder’s mother, at five feet four, was legally seated in the front seat of a car equipped with air bags, he subsequently determined that she was on Medicare, and issued Mr. Kidder a summons for negligently exposing a vintage citizen to the possibility of injury by allowing her to sit next to a door.
Although Mr. Kidder, as the driver, received the latest summons, courts are bound by Section 8 of the Federal Responsible Families Act to consider all summonses previously issued against any family member residing at the same address when assessing penalties in family negligence cases. Given the family’s record for this type of offense, the Kidders may be prosecuted as a persistent criminal enterprise and could be liable for a $140,000 fine, seven years in jail and permanent loss of driving privileges.
Mrs. Kidder will stand trial separately next month on charges of perpetrating a non-medical atrocity on a Medicare recipient.