In Which My Friend Lets Her 3 Kids Wait in the Car and Along Comes the FBI

My eszezdedia
friend Julie Gunlock lives just outside of DC. She’s a great mom AND the author of a book I love, From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back.
Well, just recently she found herself fighting back a particularly stubborn misconception. She’d let her kids, 9, 7 and 5, wait in the car for 15 minutes while she ran into the store to get dinner. She emerged to find an FBI agent flashing his badge and insisting, “M’am, you can’t do that” because “kids get snatched all the time.”
Julie knew that was untrue. She told him to put away his badge and go find a real crook. Here’s her feisty article. And here’s her note to me and this blog:
Dear Lenore: I thought you’d want to see this article I wrote for Heat Street. As you know, this incident rattled me and I am so thankful that I could contact you (actually, I emailed you before even calling my husband!) for comfort, support and accurate information about my rights and the laws currently on the books.
I’m so grateful to you for creating a website where moms can go for solid information and for creating the Free-Range Kids movement. Without it, I would be feeling quite guilty, and probably questioning my own instincts as a mom. It’s nice to know I’m not alone and that there’s a movement to push back on the sort of harassment I experienced. Equally gratifying is seeing my children’s pride in me. They’re thrilled that mom stood up for her rights and didn’t back down when the man tried to throw around his authority. That’s a valuable lesson for them to see and it’s because I knew my rights that I was able to stand up for myself.
Thanks again! – Julie Gunlock
Now, some people wonder why the topic of kids waiting in the car comes up so often here. After all, it’s not like the kids are out playing or delivering newspapers — classic Free-Range activities.
The reason is that the “car wait = death” hysteria is emblematic of our culture’s belief that kids can never be unsupervised, even when all the evidence shows that this activity is extremely safe. It’s not perfectly safe — an impossible goal. But sitting in the car  is safer than being driven in one (the number one way kids die) or being dragged across the parking lot, even though that is what the authorities encourage parents to do.
When both driving and dragging are demonstrably more dangerous than a short, unsupervised car wait, and yet are NOT subject to societal disapproval (including arrest), it’s clear we are not dealing with rationality. We are dealing with superstition — the new and irrational conviction that if we ever dare leave a child unsupervised, danger magically materializes, like the devil rushing in to teach the non-believer a lesson.
Think of it as the Evil Eye in reverse: Take your eyes OFF your kid and it’s like God is looking away, too. Evil gets its chance.
So in a way, our unstated state religion preaches that only supervised children are blessed and safe. This means that any parent who is NOT constantly supervising her kids is a heretic who must be punished. Meantime, her children must be saved by true believers…like the FBI agent.
It’s hard to fight a deeply held religious belief. But if we want to be able to raise our kids the way we see fit, and especially if we want to give them any Free-Range freedoms, we must fight for the right to parent outside the prevailing Cult of Constant Supervision. This cult keeps manifesting itself in shopping center parking lots, which is why I keep writing about it. – L


You left your child to me? Just because you had to run in to get dinner?

You left your child to me? Just because you had to run in to get dinner?


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40 Responses to In Which My Friend Lets Her 3 Kids Wait in the Car and Along Comes the FBI

  1. Neil M April 26, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    Fantastic post, and good for Gunlock for the way she dismissed that agent. In my opinion, that man was trying to intimidate her, and her refusal to be intimidated obviously put him on his heels.

  2. david zaitzeff April 26, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    Ok, so, the different states have different laws on whether or not you can leave your kid alone in a car briefly, unattended or allegedly unattended? Where is Washington state and why, on the list of the states and the kid in car laws?

    What is true is that in Virginia—where I live—there’s no law preventing me from practicing my own judgment when it comes to leaving my kids in the car. That’s right. I hadn’t broken any laws, and yet this FBI official told me what I had done was illegal and implied what I’d done was morally wrong too.

    There are of course two risks with a kid in the car. One is the alleged snatching and the other is overheating.
    Kids above a certain age are not at risk of overheating, it seems, if they can open the car door.

    where do we go on this website to find a listing of states and their laws as relates to kids in cars?

  3. Brooks April 26, 2016 at 12:06 pm #

    David Zaitzeff – This is a general list:

  4. m April 26, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    “…our unstated state religion preaches that only supervised children are blessed and safe. This means that any parent who is NOT constantly supervising her kids is a heretic who must be punished. Meantime, her children must be saved by true believers…”

    This is the most accurate description of today’s culture I’ve ever read.

    I also feel that by accusing others of being “bad parents who don’t love their children”, it helps alleviate the guilt of the reporting parents for being less-than-model parents themselves. All of us are sinners in the “perfect parent” religion.

  5. david zaitzeff April 26, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    I just read a bit of the rcw

    RCW 46.61.685
    Leaving children unattended in standing vehicle with motor running—Penalty.
    (1) It is unlawful for any person, while operating or in charge of a vehicle, to park or willfully allow such vehicle to stand upon a public highway or in a public place with its motor running, leaving a minor child or children under the age of sixteen years unattended in the vehicle.
    (2) Any person violating this section is guilty of a misdemeanor. Upon a second or subsequent conviction for a violation of this section, the department shall revoke the operator’s license of such person.

    does this mean you can’t legally leave your kid under 16 unattended in a car per se or does it mean you can’t leave the kid in the car unattended if the motor is running?

    I could be wrong, but I think it means whether the motor is running or not, you can’t leave the kids unattended. Maybe I am not reading this right.


  6. Marianne Lappin April 26, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

    Excellent article. I raised my children to be independent and confident, to fight for their rights when necessary, and not to be over-sheltered. They are wonderful young women – independent, confident, excelling in their fields, fabulous mothers, I could go on. I did my job! (Actually, I pity the person who would attempt anything against my daughters – he/she would WANT to take them back.)

  7. Papilio April 26, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    So the FBI doesn’t even know its own crime statistics?

  8. Denise April 26, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

    I don’t believe the guy was really FBI. Gut feeling here, but something is off.

  9. Cedric April 26, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    Car running is illegal. Car not running, they can stuff it .

  10. lollipoplover April 26, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    “So the FBI doesn’t even know its own crime statistics?”

    Maybe the guy had one of these badges:

    (I continue to be shocked at what one can buy online.)

    Not surprising that someone in a government job doesn’t know/comprehend their local laws. Sanctimonious strangers are found in all walks of life.

  11. Marie April 26, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    … to park or willfully allow such vehicle to stand upon a public highway or in a public place with its motor running,…

    Good question, David! The answer depends on how you read it. It could be either:

    1. …[to park the vehicle] or [to allow vehicle to stand with its motor running]
    2. .. [to park or allow vehicle to stand] with its motor running

    The first reading would not allow you to leave kids in a car with the engine off. The second would. But since parking and letting a car stand might be the same thing, the first reading might be the one to go by. My guess is that the legislature wrote the law with no expectation that picking up a rotisserie chicken should result in an arrest…or in an FBI agent throwing his weight around.

    One thing seems certain. The FBI agent is not the one who could answer your question with any certainty.

    As for flashing badges…how many of us can tell a real badge from a fake?

  12. david zaitzeff April 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    I’ll ask some acquaintance in spd or some media acquaintances how spd understands the law.

    I see spd several time a week anyway just walking around downtown.

  13. kristin April 26, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    David, in Spokane a woman was turned into police by a busybody at a Target store leaving her child in the car for a minute and the police took no action and told everyone that it wasn’t illegal. So looks like it’s OK in WA for now.

  14. NY Mom April 26, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    The problem is the usual: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”
    We as a nation are not willing to pay taxes. Therefore, nothing gets done.
    The FBI are lawyers, but that does not mean they are necessarily either intelligent or well trained. Hence the statement that kids get snatched all the time. When was the most recent snatching? Betcha he couldn’t name one more recent than poor little Adam Walsh, the universal poster child of missing and endangered. Pity the poor police, too,subject to the wrath of the media for their incompetence and sheer ignorance, qualities inflicted by a public equally ignorant and unwilling to provide them guidance and training because the ongoing recession has left everyone except the most fortunate 1% in a state of near destitution.
    When the economy improves, all will be well and law enforcement will reflect the wisdom of a just (tax-paying) public.

  15. JND April 26, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    FBI? What else do you expect from pigs?

  16. Resident Iconoclast April 26, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    What if it’s not superstition?

    What if, instead of superstition, it is a power-grab, intended to terrorize citizens? Do any of you understand what actually is illegal under state or federal law? Are you absolutely sure you haven’t violated a law today? So if a police officer arrives, and even if he invents a violation of the law to threaten you, would you know the difference?

    Repressive governments down through history all have thrived on uncertainty, intentionally created in their citizens. A fear of authorities, that if we are visible or stand out, they may select us to be made an example of. If it is a serious, federal felony for kids to “sext” each other with nude pictures of themselves, who decides WHICH children will be singled out, for federal charges and a life term on the sex offender registry? After all, it appears the majority of teenagers today violate these laws? Which ones will become the “losers” who suffer the punishment? A sure sign that this is the intent of the laws, is that many “crimes” carry absurd, life-ending penalties, out of proportion to their actual seriousness.

    These uncertainties keep people in line. It keeps them obedient. When you’re selected as “the one,” few people want to be your friend, because nearly all worry that they will be next. They often protest that they “have nothing to hide,” as if to protect themselves from suspicion. The very foundations of society corrode, until life becomes a charade, and people play along, pretending to be something other than themselves. Barbarous inhumanity is easy, when society disconnects from reality.

    Under the constitution, people are entitled to know what is illegal, in plain language, and what the penalties are. This long ago ceased to matter, when we became slaves to owners who thrive on dividing and conquering all opposition.

  17. Dee April 26, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

    This is awesome!

  18. EricS April 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    @david zaitzeff: as the section says: (1) It is unlawful for any person, while operating or in charge of a vehicle, to park or willfully allow such vehicle to stand upon a public highway or in a public place with its motor running, leaving a minor child or children under the age of sixteen years unattended in the vehicle.

    I read it this way…

    It is unlawful for any person, while operating or in charge of a vehicle, to park or willfully allow such vehicle to stand upon a public highway or in a public place, with its motor running.

    Meaning, whether you’re operating or in charge of the vehicle, if you park or stand the vehicle in a public highway or public place, WHILE the motor is running, you are breaking the law.

    So if you turn the the car off, and park or stand in public areas, it’s NOT illegal. This I can understand. We do hear of the rare incidences of car thieves seeing cars that are running, break in and take off. That’s like leaving your house keys in the door, then leaving for work. It’s very enticing for thieves to take advantage of any opportunities.

    But perhaps this is more to make car owners more accountable for their actions. After all, it takes a lot of resources to track down stolen cars and it’s thief. When it could have been easily prevented if the car owner shut their car off and locked the doors. Out of sight, out of mind kind a thing.

    I don’t know anywhere in the North America where it’s ILLEGAL to leave your kids in the car for a few minutes. So long as they are in no mortal danger. ie. locked in a car when it’s 100F outside. Any parent that leaves their kids in an oven like condition deserves to be jailed. But if the kids are fine, and comfortable, there is no neglect, abuse, or any other fearful notion many adults have about children these days. It’s called common sense for a reason. People should start using it again.

  19. lollipoplover April 26, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

    “Instead, I calmly placed the chicken in the car, turned to him and firmly informed him that his harassment wasn’t welcome. I pointed my finger at him defiantly as I told him that I hadn’t done anything illegal or unethical and that unless he wanted me to call the police, he better back off my car and my kids.”


    These busybodies need to be called out for instilling fear in those kids in the vehicle. Mr. FBI is the creeper here. Back away from the car or watch if from afar if you are truly worried about it. Kids ARE snatched every day…by their own parents. No one wants that car full of hungry, dirty kids. Seriously. Do you have kids??

    Turn the tables on these sanctimonious people who feel the need to play parenting police.
    I don’t judge them for buying soda and bacon, so leave me alone if I run an errand for 15 minutes and my kids are quiet and safely sitting in the car. If they were juggling knives in traffic, then yes, please stop me and tell me what you saw. But this is harassment, to make accusations based on kids…sitting…in a car. Way to stand up for your kids, Julie!

  20. EricS April 26, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Watch the show Brain Games. This explains why and how people think the way they do. A number of episodes apply very well to paranoid parenting mentality of today. And how it has spread world wide just in the last 20 years. It’s not so much society and crime. But how people are conditioned to believe what others want them to believe.

    Episodes also relate to how marketing manipulates public views and opinions, to SELL products and services. People are easily manipulated, and their views change without them ever realizing it. Like someone who keeps eating and eating, with no exercise, then one day looks in the mirror and is dumbfounded that they put on weight.

  21. Havva April 26, 2016 at 3:14 pm #

    It sounds to me like this FBI agent had no jurisdiction in a Virginia parking lot and was misusing his badge to intimidate a mother…. which sadly is better in this case than calling the cops would likely have been.

    The counties in Virginia have varying interpretations of the state’s neglect statutes and several of them, especially in the suburbs of DC, would consider children under the age of 8, or even 10 neglected if mom left them in the car for any amount of time without someone over 12 or 13. You really have to search on a county by county basis since the laws are so frequently up for interpretation.

    She is of course right that there is no law against leaving a child in the car in Virginia. Not only that, at least one bill has been written and failed to become law. Per various maps of state laws such as this one:
    I would love to know more about the states were these efforts have failed and how and why that happened. If the bill(s?) failed because the legislature thought it shouldn’t be illegal, that would be great ammunition for moms accused of neglect. And it would make a perfect example of extralegal activities by CPS. But if the legislature rejected the bill because they expected the existing neglect laws to punish leaving children unattended in cars, then the failure of such a bill is as meaningless as the various county CPS agencies treat it.

    All that said. Congratulations to Julie Gunlock she may well have saved other moms from needless harassment.

  22. Christine April 26, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

    This is a subject that really annoys me. I leave my 7, 4 and 3 year old in the car for 2-3 minutes while I run in the post office to drop of packages. I always park in a low traffic area and park do that my tinted windows hide that my kids are in the car. Do I do this because I am afraid of predators? NO! I do it because I am worried some nosy person will call the cops. My 7 almost 8 year old is very tesponsiblr for gis age. I let him do things most parents do not let their kids do because I want him to learn confidence in taking care of himself. Something our society is stripping away from our kids. Things need to change.

  23. Bob cavanaugh April 26, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

    Eric S,
    In principal your right. There are some laws however that say a chold may be left in a car barring circumstances that pose a substancial risk to the child. In practice, if I’m not mistaken, we’ve seen cases of authorities twisting that around as justification.

  24. Steve April 26, 2016 at 3:59 pm #

    “We are dealing with superstition — the new and irrational conviction that if we ever dare leave a child unsupervised, danger magically materializes, like the devil rushing in to teach the non-believer a lesson”


    Great word to use, Lenore!

    Perhaps you could start repeating it in your talks.

    It’s so true, but I don’t remember you using it before. It deserves to be repeated anytime a helicopter school administrator, policeman, or any busy-body calls a parent down for not standing beside the child in question at all times. You can smile at the fearmonger and say, “Oh, so you believe in that superstition about ________ instead of being aware of what The Facts and Statistics tell us about child danger.”

    You might also ask the person — “Are you aware of who “the most likely” molesters and abusers are?

  25. delurking April 26, 2016 at 4:58 pm #

    What she did is in fact illegal in Maryland.

  26. JP Merzetti April 26, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

    When I was a kid, kids hung out in cars all the time. It was a blast.
    Now….this happened far less frequently back then, than it does now, you understand….because kids were not schlepped in motorized vehicles everywhere they went (only everywhere their lazy parents went) if the kids happened to be on the loose with mom or dad (usually dad.)
    Times have changed.
    Not only are kids in cars (driving or otherwise) about 800 million percent more than they were 50-60 years ago (and autopian ecstacy was already well under way by then – think Disney fantasies of clover-leafed heaven)
    but no-one ever even considered car temperature: I grew to a ripe old 16 years of age before I ever even heard of such a catastrophe as a car-cooked kid.

    Big question: why?
    (excellent question)

    Here’s how I figure it:
    itty bitty kids got schlepped off with mom (or dad) into…..wherever they were going.
    Any child over the age of three was left behind -and just reached over, rolled down the window, or just (wait for it!) opened the door (OMG!)
    That’s right. They um….could do this actually – because they weren’t strapped in for a moon launch.
    They were just sitting (oh hell!) in the front seat of dad’s car. That’s right.
    (or in the back seat – if there was a lot of sibling rivalry going on.) Unrestrained. Bouncing about, even.

    So now. How much safer are kids now than we were back then? (another interesting question.)
    Conveniently (for the legislative demon dragons) nobody seems to remember anymore.
    History is doomed to repeat itself whether folks remember or not.
    Brand new boogiemen come back in style with the season’s change.

    As to laws about (unattended) kids in vehicles with running motors – anyone notice the age? Yep. 16.
    The legal driving age.
    When my son was 5, I wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving him in my car with the motor running.
    He would have gone on a joyride for sure.

    Common sense.
    Worth either a million
    or a penny,
    depending on how you measure it.

  27. James Pollock April 26, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

    The headline here is misleading… it isn’t “here comes the FBI”. It’s “here comes a nosy busybody who happens to work for the FBI, and needs correction with regard to their scope of work.” I get how that might not fit as a headline, but it is FAR more accurate.

  28. elizabeth April 26, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

    Straight from wiki on carseats:

    Manufacturers have quality controls to ensure seats are properly put together and packaged. However, it is not guaranteed that the included instructions are always adhered to and correctly followed. Up to 95% of the safety seats that are installed may not be the right seat for the child, may be hooked into the vehicle loosely, may be hooked with an incompatible belt in the vehicle, may have harnesses incorrectly fastened in some way, or may be incorrectly placed in front of air bags. In 1997, six out of ten children who were killed in vehicle crashes were not correctly restrained.[41]

    Child Safety Seat Inspection site by the Maui Police Department
    Along with the problem of instructions not being followed properly, there are other hazards that can affect children involving these safety seats. A recent study[clarification needed] attributed many cases of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to the prolonged sitting or lying position these infants are in when putting the safety seats to use. When researchers reviewed more than 500 infant deaths, it was found that 17 of these deaths occurred while the infant was in a device such as a child safety seat. The age of the most occurring rates of death by SIDS in a child safety device was found to be under one month, having six of the 17 deaths happen in this age group. Although SIDS has been found to be a high risk regarding child safety seats, a coroner in Quebec also stated that “putting infants in car seats…causes breathing problems and should be discouraged.”[44] His warning came after the death of a two-month-old boy who was left to nap in a child safety seat positioned inside his crib rather than the crib itself. The death was linked to positional asphyxiation.[44] This means that the child was in a position causing him to slowly lose his supply of oxygen. Coroner Jacques Robinson said it’s common for a baby’s head to slump forward while in a car seat that is not properly installed in a car and that can diminish a baby’s ability to take in oxygen. “The car seat is for the car,” he said. “It’s not for a bed or sleeping.” Robinson added, however, he has nothing against car seats when they are properly used. The coroner said that it is common for a baby’s head to “slump forward while in a car seat and that it diminishes oxygen”.[

  29. elizabeth April 26, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

    I dont think i ever rode in a car seat, and i was, regularly, either a) left in the car because it wasnt going to be a long trip inside, or b) got handed the keys and told to go sit in the car because my brothers and i were getting a bit loud in the grocery store. I didnt overheat or get snatched, and neither did my brothers.

  30. Rick April 26, 2016 at 8:59 pm #

    Thanks, Lenore. And if you’re ever ready to touch the vaccine issue look at this Fear is all they have. Superstition is pervasive in “science”. We’re living in a very irrational age. Start with this

  31. Barry Lederman April 26, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

    “creating a website where moms can go for”

    dads too.

  32. Warren April 26, 2016 at 9:59 pm #


    Shut up!

  33. Donald April 26, 2016 at 10:29 pm #

    Authorities often state something is illegal when it isn’t. I love her comparison with religion.

    “….state religion preaches that only supervised children are blessed and safe. This means that any parent who is NOT constantly supervising her kids is a heretic who must be punished.”

    I’d like to take this one further. Until about 1600, the sun revolved around the earth. This was the belief and the church took it upon themselves to state that god said this was so.

    They overstepped their authority then just the same as this FBI agent overstepped his authority.

  34. bmommyx2 April 27, 2016 at 12:27 am #

    Too bad her kids didn’t go running into the store screaming about the strange man lurking around the car prompting the mom or the store personnel to call the police. That would have shown the nosy FBI agent.

  35. Roger the Shrubber April 27, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    James can add ‘World’s Worst Headline Writer’ to his list of accomplishments, right under ‘FRK’s Biggest Troll.’

  36. Vicki Bradley April 27, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    @Barry Lederman

    I’m glad you made the correction of adding “dads” – I meant to comment on that the other day but forgot. I don’t like it when anything to do with kids is made into a “mom issue,” as fathers are just as important in the raising of children.

    @Warren and @Roger the Shrubber: I think James just likes to play devil’s advocate. He certainly is consistent in that one always knows what stance he’s going to take on the issues presented in this website. Don’t let him get under your skin.

  37. hineata April 27, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    @Rick – while it’s off topic, I made the mistake of clicking on your link, because vaccination is something I am personally interested in. I would suggest you read ‘Deadly Choices’ by Dr Paul Offitt, if you want real science about vaccines, and the problem with correlation vs. causation, among other things. The autism link has been so soundly refuted for so long that I cannot believe it still appears anywhere, but anti-vaxxers seem determined to hang on to it, for some unknown reason.

  38. hineata April 27, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

    PS I cannot imagine why Lenore would post anything much about vaccination per se, as it’s a public health rather than free range issue. We occasionally touch on it ourselves in the comments. Of course, this being her own blog, she’s ‘free” to write on whatever she wants ☺.

  39. RCW clarification April 30, 2016 at 12:32 am #

    @david zaitzeff

    As a fellow Washingtonian and Seattleite, I say don’t ask SPD anything on this as you would be leaving yourself to many follow up questions. Ask an attorney for clarification, not SPD or any media type.

    Looking at RCW listed here on this website, IF the motor is running on a public highway or public space, THEN you cannot leave a person under the age of 16 in the vehicle unattended.

    No motor running, no problem with person younger than 16 in the vehicle.

    HOWEVER, now, here is where they could get you….Child Endangerment, which can be applied many ways…

    Leaving a person younger than 16 in a vehicle unattended with no motor running, but they keys are left there, it is a hot Seattle day (which does happen) and the windows are not opened, etc could you in trouble with SPD or any LE office. The LEO won’t be afraid to right up a citation or even arrest on something so simple that our parents did without any harm and have it sent it for possible prosecution. While RCW may not specifically call it out, it is the intent of the law that matters and what the LEO et al will take into account.

    Bottom line, in Washington State, don’t leave your people younger than 16 in the vehicle unattended.

  40. James Pollock May 1, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

    “Bottom line, in Washington State, don’t leave your people younger than 16 in the vehicle unattended.”

    The key area of inquiry is what the conditions were. A hot car is potentially endangerment, but there’s some other cases. For example, if the car is in a travel lane on a busy road, you’re probably going to be explaining to Officer Friendly why your child was alone in the car. On other hand, if it’s on the side of the highway, in the car is the safest place to be.

    Washington DOES have a statute (9.91.060) specifically for people who leave their kids in the car to go into a bar.

    On the other hand, it seems the training for Washington State Troopers in inadequate.

    (The trooper answers this question incorrectly. He’s clearly referring to 46.61.465, but is interpreting the statute incorrectly… an element of the offense is leaving the motor running. He also gives conflicting advice, correctly noting that the statute applies only to public highways and spaces, but stating flatly that leaving kids in the car is illegal in Washington.)