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The girl was in the trunk

This is a story about a little girl who was found alone in the trunk of a car huddled in a blue baby blanket. With the girl was a donut, an orange balloon, a stuffed toy cat and a flashlight. This is also a story about her mother, Chante Fernandez, a 24-year-old woman trying to raise a child alone, working two jobs to do it. The child is safe and well, but the mother is in trouble.

She is accused of endangering the welfare of a minor and has already spent two nights in jail. She could go to prison. Her daughter is in state custody.

Police arrested Fernandez Saturday night. She was working her second job, as sales clerk at a mall in Woodbridge, N.J. Outside in the parking lot sat her 1987 Toyota Celica. For lack of a babysitter, inside was her daughter. Fernandez checked on her during her breaks. This was the way her weekends had gone for a while. How long, she won't say.

That all changed Saturday night when shoppers heard noises coming from the car. They alerted mall security.

"We went over to the car, and you could see through the back seat a blue blanket," Robert Rigby told the News Tribune of Woodbridge. Rigby, an off-duty police officer, was working as a security guard at the mall.

"We watched it for a while, and when we saw the blanket move, we broke into the trunk," he said. "I was so shocked seeing a little girl back there. She was real scared. Her eyes were just wide open. It was cold out there, and she huddled in a corner of the trunk with that little blanket. She said her mother put her in there. She said her mother was working."

Security officers found the mother and brought her to the car. "In 14 years, I thought I saw everything," Rigby said. "That's just not how you treat kids."

Fernandez admits putting her child in the car. "Yes, I left her alone while I worked, but not in the trunk," she told the Home News of New Brunswick, N.J. "I left a split fold-down seat open so she could climb back there and sleep."

She says the car is equipped with an alarm. Fernandez told the News Tribune that she taught her daughter to activate it in case of danger. Once set off, the alarm would beep a pager Fernandez wore. Saturday night, the alarm went off. She ventured out into the parking lot and saw people gathered around her car.

"I panicked," she told the News Tribune. She returned to her work station, knowing that the police would find her. If convicted of all pending charges, Fernandez faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $7,500 fine.

Still, she defends what she did. "The car was the safest place for her," she told the News Tribune in an interview at her home.

Fernandez told the Home News that she had gone through three babysitters but fired them because they stole from her, brought boyfriends into her home, or left the child alone for long stretches.

"I couldn't leave her alone in the house, not in the neighborhood I live in," she said.

She said she had approached state youth authorities and the county welfare office, but claims no one would help her.

"Our society will intervene when the woman fails," David Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Child Care Advisory Council, told the News Tribune. "Today, we're spending a fortune to keep this woman in jail and her daughter in care."

"This is child care after the fact. This is a tragic story of society working backwards to help single mothers."

Fernandez told the Home News a litany of woes: "My husband abandoned us, and I was granted a divorce last year. In January my father died, and in September my house was robbed of everything except a bed.

"I went to these offices to seek help getting child support, and I was given the runaround. Welfare told me I make too much money."

She took home $254 a week as a secretary at a company that manages apartments. She made $6.50 an hour working as a sales clerk on the weekends.

"It's not enough to make house payments and care for yourself and a child," she told the Home News.

Her neighbors in Elizabeth, N.J., were shocked at news of her arrest. "I never saw Chante without her daughter," a neighbor, Barbara Hodge, told the News Tribune. "She was so protective. They'd work in their garden together. Last week, she was painting the porch, and the daughter never left her."

Neighbors spoke of the dangers in the area, how Fernandez's house had been burglarized, how she had changed her locks during the past few weeks.

"I used to worry about her, coming home late at night," another neighbor, Nina Hearns, told the News Tribune. "I'd watch her walk from her car to the house. She ran, and never looked back. I don't blame her."

Both Hodge and Hearns said they would gladly have watched the child, but were never asked. Ironically, Fernandez says she took the weekend job so she could afford to send her child to a private day school. Why? She feared for her child's safety at the public school, and the day school's hours matched her own.

Tuesday, after being released on $5,000 bail, Fernandez returned to her day job. She said she was fired.

"I walked in and everybody gave me this, "My God, how could you!' look," she said. "If looks could kill. . . . Nobody asked me why this happened."

_ The Associated Press, the News Tribune of Woodbridge, N.J., the Home News of New Brunswick, N.J., Times librarian Barbara Hijek and Times researcher Debbie Wolfe contributed to this report.