WILMINGTON, Del. — State prosecutors have dropped child endangerment charges against a Rehoboth Beach vacationer arrested in August for leaving her children, ages 8 and 9, home alone while she picked up dinner for her family at a nearby crab shack.
The charges against Susan Terrillion, 55, of Olney, Md., were abandoned Sept. 22 after the Delaware Department of Justice determined it could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she committed a crime.
The state's decision came just over a month after Terrillion's arrest made national headlines and sparked a firestorm of criticism against the Rehoboth Beach Police Department and questions about what age is appropriate to leave children alone.
"Unless we are going to put all kids in bubble wrap, we need to step back and let parents make their own choices so long as they do not cause harm," said David S. DeLugas, an attorney and the executive director of the nonprofit group National Association of Parents Inc., which is representing Terrillion. "Parents have the Constitutional right to make those choices, the liberty to make decisions based on their own kids."
Carl Kanefsky, a spokesman for the DOJ, said that in order to convict Terrillion of child endangerment, the state would have had to prove that she "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly acted in a manner likely" to injure the welfare of her children.
"Negligent parenting does not satisfy the requirements of the criminal statute," he said.
Delaware also has no law regarding the age in which children can be left alone. Terrillion's home state of Maryland, however, says children can be left alone starting at age 8.
A spokesman for the Rehoboth police declined to comment. Glenn Mandalas, an attorney for the city, also declined to comment since Terrillion's attorney has threatened to sue.
"However, I did a cursory review of the case, and am confident our police officers’ primary interest was the welfare of the children involved," he said.
The saga unfolded Aug. 16 when Terrillion, left her two children at their Scarborough Village vacation home to play video games while she went about 4.5 miles away to pick up dinner at Lazy Susan's Hot Fat Crabs in Lewes, according to court records obtained by The News Journal.
She told the children to stay indoors, and told her 8-year-old daughter that if anyone knocked on the door, she should tell them their mother is in the shower, the court documents said.
The children, however, did not obey her and took their two golden retrievers outside to use the bathroom, according to an investigative narrative written by a police officer.
The dogs were not leashed and ran off into the street with the children chasing behind, the court records said.
A man driving in the area almost struck the dogs. He stopped and helped the children get the dogs leashed and back to the home in the 200 block of Country Club Drive, according to court records.
The driver then asked the children if their parents were home. One said their mother was not home, while the other said their mother was showering, the court documents said.
He believed the children were around age 5 or 6 and contacted the police, the court documents said.
Two Rehoboth Beach Police Officers responded around 7:35 p.m. The officers learned that the children were left unsupervised and that other family members were arriving in Rehoboth Beach tomorrow to join them and their mother on vacation, the documents said.
The dispatchers attempted to call Terrillion's cell phone and the crab shack. Eventually, they made contact and she said she would be back in five minutes, the documents said.
Terrillion returned and, after speaking to the officers, they advised her that they would be seeking a warrant for her arrest. She became upset and told the officer she is a single mother and was frustrated this was happening on vacation, the documents said.
A Justice of the Peace Court judge later granted the arrest warrant, and Terrillion was allowed to turn herself in to the Rehoboth Beach Police Department the next day. She was charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and released on $500 unsecured bail.
The incident was also reported to the state Division of Family Services hotline by the police.
The police sent out a press release on Aug. 19 about her arrest. The story drew nationwide attention, and days later, the police issued another statement that included more details about her arrest.
The comment said that the arrest of Terrillion "involved a complex and multifaceted complaint that centered around one important factor, the safety and well-being of the children involved."
"In this case, as in any other, the primary focus of the police is the protection of human life, especially those who cannot protect themselves," the statement said.
It went on to say that in this case and all others the officers of the Rehoboth Beach Police Department "wear the badge on their chest with pride as a symbol of justice with emphasis on moral and ethical decision making."
Weeks later, the DOJ abandoned the charges, taking into account that Terrillion has no criminal record and the differences between Delaware and Maryland state law.
"To the extent that this matter required state intervention, the prosecutors believed that it might more appropriately come from child welfare authorities rather than through a criminal prosecution of the parent," Kanefsky said.
DeLugas agreed with the decision to drop the charges. Parents have a fundamental right to parent as they see fit as long as their children are not being harmed, he said.
Leaving her children home alone was not likely to cause them injury, he said, pointing to the fact that children in Rehoboth Beach frequently ride bicycles by themselves, go to the arcade and walk to school alone.
Cases like this one are becoming more frequent and can have a chilling impact on parents, DeLugas said.
"Are parents around the country second-guessing themselves anytime they think 'I need to go to CVS and buy medicine for my sick child?'" he said. "I am very concerned, and this organization of parents is concerned, that parents are going to be second-guessing their decisions."
Terrillion's attorney indicated that a civil lawsuit is possible, but that he hopes it can be avoided through mediation with the city and a joint press conference in which Terrillion would be publicly cleared.
"It has been horrifying for her, and again, it makes you wonder 'what am I allowed to do?" DeLugas said.
Follow Jessica Masulli Reyes on Twitter: @JessicaMasulli.