Jill Adam, the daughter of Sir Lawrence Byford, formerly HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, was arrested with her husband, Philip, during a beach holiday in St Petersburg, on the Gulf of Mexico.
The couple, who were on holiday with Sir Lawrence, spent the night in jail after they were found to have left their one-year-old son and five- year-old daughter asleep in their hotel room at the Tradewinds Resort in St Pete Beach, an affluent holiday spot, while they went to watch a firework display.
Police said that while the parents were away, the fireworks awakened their daughter, who wandered out of the second-floor room. The door closed and locked behind her. When she couldn't re-enter the room, she began crying. A hotel security guard found her and called police. Captain Joe Cornish, of St Petersburg police, said that Sir Lawrence "did protest quite a bit" at the couple's arrest.
Mrs Adam, 33, and her 35-year-old husband were taken to the Pinellas County jail where they were detained overnight. They were then released on $1,000 bail before returning to their home in Yorkshire.
In the United States the term "child abuse" is often broadly defined and can include so-called "home alone" cases as well as more extreme incidents with a sexual element. The Pinellas County state attorney's office must now decide whether to prosecute the parents for child abuse.
If the couple are prosecuted and found guilty, they could face a sentence of to up to five years in prison.
"They have been arrested for felony child abuse for leaving the children unattended in the room," said John Trevena, the couple's lawyer. "They have not been formally charged and it is my belief that they will not be formally charged. It is very, very troubling for the family. We believe that it is a tremendous over-reaction from the police."
"Prosecuting distinguished British citizens on felony child abuse charges for watching a fireworks display could provoke such an outcry from Great Britain as to risk an international incident," he added.
St Petersburg Police said the couple left the children unattended for 90 minutes, though Mr Trevena said it was no more than 45.
Sir Lawrence, now 73, who was awarded the Queen's Police Medal in 1973, was HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary from 1983 to 1987. Two years before taking up the post he conducted the official review into the Yorkshire Ripper case, in which he criticised West Yorkshire detectives for failing to use information technology.
Since leaving the prestigious position Sir Lawrence has worked as a management consultant. He has also been president of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
The case was investigated by both the Florida Department of Children and Families (FDCF) and the police. While the FDCF decided the parents made "an error in judgment", it felt their actions did not amount to child abuse, and the agency declined to take action against them, such as ordering counselling.
But criminal charges still stand. Local officers said the parents deserved to be charged and jailed.
"The officers acted appropriately and did not overreact," said Capt Cornish. "If the child had fallen off the balcony and died, nobody would be saying the parents made just a lapse in judgment. We made our point. We got their attention."
The issue of leaving children alone unattended has been extremely sensitive since the case of Diane Bogg who, in 1996 left her three children, including a four-year-old daughter, at home while she flew to Spain for a holiday.
The authorities were alerted when the girl, who had been left with neighbours her mother had only known for a few weeks, was found sobbing on the doorstep after wandering back to her home.
A year earlier, a woman from Liverpool was jailed for a year after she also flew to Spain for a holiday. She was later released by the Court of Appeal which said her imprisonment was breaking up the family.Reuse content