COA reverses mother’s neglect conviction after 13-year-old was left alone for weekend

A mother convicted of neglect of a dependent after she left her son home alone for the weekend did not actually commit that crime, the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in a Friday reversal.

In July 2020, Chasity M. Becklehimer traveled out-of-state with her 4-year-old child to meet up with her husband, leaving her 13-year-old son, J.K., home alone.

Becklehimer gave J.K, who had stayed home by himself on multiple occasions, a cellphone, $25 and ensured that the refrigerator was stocked with food.The mother instructed her son to have no guests over while she was away, to call his grandparents, who lived five minutes away, if he needed anything and to call 911 in case of an emergency.

During that weekend, J.K. went to the neighborhood pool with his friend, B.D., but did not invite him for a visit because it was against his mother’s rules. The next day, J.K. saw B.D. tapping on his window and trying to open it.

J.K., who knew that B.D. had a type of multitool with a pocketknife component, was frightened that B.D. would hurt him and called 911. Officers arrived and ordered B.D. to go home.

J.K. then told officers that he had been “alone since Friday[,]” and that Becklehimer had traveled to Pennsylvania.

Becklehimer didn’t answer any of J.K.’s subsequent seven phones calls, and when his grandparents were summoned, they were unaware that J.K. was home alone and “shocked” that his mother didn’t tell them like usual.

The officers contacted the Indiana Department of Child Services and reported the incident, resulting in Becklehimer being charged with Level 6 felony neglect of a dependent.

During testimony, J.K. wasn’t able to answer when asked when his mom was supposed to come home, but he did say it was his friend’s actions that made him afraid, not the fact that he was home alone. Becklehimer was ultimately convicted and sentenced to two years suspended to probation.

On appeal, Becklehimer pointed to Scruggs and Thames v. State, 653 N.E.2d 512 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995), for support, arguing the state failed to present evidence that she had actual knowledge that she left J.K. in a dangerous situation. She also asserted that the state failed to contradict her “characterization that [J.K.] was responsible” enough to be left alone like the child in Scruggs.

“Like in Scruggs, Becklehimer presented evidence that suggested thirteen-year-old J.K. was responsible enough to be left home alone, and the State did not introduce contradictory evidence,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote.

The COA noted that while the grandfather was surprised that Becklehimer had failed to inform him that she would be away that weekend, Becklehimer’s omission was “an isolated occurrence since she typically alerted Grandfather whenever she left J.K. home alone.”

“Further, even though Becklehimer was in Pennsylvania for the weekend, and contrary to the State’s assertion that Becklehimer had abandoned J.K. for an indefinite period, Becklehimer returned on Monday, and during her time away, she remained in contact with J.K.,” Riley wrote.

“… Looking at all the surrounding circumstances of this case, we agree with Becklehimer that the State failed to develop testimony from any of the witnesses it called to establish that by leaving J.K. alone for the weekend she was subjectively aware of a high probability that she would be exposing J.K. to a dangerous situation that would endanger his life or health. We therefore agree with Becklehimer that the State failed to prove the mens rea element of the crime,” it concluded. “… Accordingly, we reverse Becklehimer’s conviction for Level 6 felony neglect of a dependent.”

The case is Chasity M. Becklehimer v. State of Indiana21A-CR-1646.

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