HEATHSVILLE, Va. -- An eastern Virginia couple arrested after their 6-year-old son crashed the family car while trying to drive himself to school appeared in court Friday on child-endangerment charges.
A Northumberland County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge appointed attorneys for Jaqulyn Waltman and David Dodson. He also set a March preliminary hearing. Each has been charged with one count of felony child endangerment and could face between one year and five years in prison.
Waltman, 26, was returned to the local jail after her appearance. Dodson, 40, remains free on bond. He declined to comment after the hearing.
"Mr. Dodson is very thankful that his son is safe and that no one was injured that day," said Dodson's attorney, Jane Wrightson.
Wrightson also said Dodson will make sure such an incident doesn't happen again.
Waltman's lawyer, James Cupp, declined comment.
"Ultimately this is not about a child driving a car," Commonwealth's Attorney R. Michael McKenney said in an interview after the hearing. "There are a number of problems that result in them not being able to properly parent and care for their children."
The boy drove his parents' Ford Taurus after missing the bus Monday morning, weaving in and out of traffic and crossing a bridge over the Great Wicomico River, police said. He made it about 6 miles, mostly down U.S. 360, and was spotted by several motorists before crashing into a utility pole not far from Northumberland Elementary School.
Despite not wearing a seat belt, he wasn't seriously injured, but the car was severely damaged, state police said.
The boy told sheriff's deputies he figured out how to drive by playing video games and needed to get to school because he didn't want to miss lunch and gym class.
The boy and his 4-year-old brother were placed with a foster family after the incident and are attending school daily.
McKenney said the decision to lock up the boys' mother wasn't taken lightly, and came after several instances in which she failed to provide adequate care. Waltman suffers from mental health difficulties "that prevent her from parenting or working" or being allowed to be alone with her children, he said.
"The risk of neglect and that the neglect could result in death of a child outweighs the immediate impact of the removal of a parent from the home," McKenney said.
Waltman was sleeping when the boy took off for school in the car, authorities said.
Monday's drive wasn't the first time the boy took the family car from their home. A similar incident occurred last year in neighboring Lancaster County, McKenney said. The parents weren't prosecuted but the county placed the boy in foster care in September, and a judge approved an order prohibiting his mother from being his sole custodian.
After her arrest this week, Waltman was also ordered held without bond in nearby King and Queen County, where she faces bad-check charges, McKenney said.
The case is just one of many that involve "terrible family dynamics, financial, mental-health issues" and other challenges, McKenney said. "But, usually, there's no hook to get the public's attention."
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