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A New Moral Panic Targets Moms

In Pennsylvania, mothers are harshly penalized for leaving children unattended in vehicles, even for several minutes.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Cavan Images/Getty.

A New Moral Panic Targets Moms

In Pennsylvania, mothers are harshly penalized for leaving children unattended in vehicles, even for several minutes.

Before Ashley could answer any of police Sgt. Keith Stambaugh’s questions, she asked one of her own: “Are you going to take my children?”

Earlier that day, on Aug. 18, 2018, Ashley had driven to a Kohl’s department store in Silver Spring Township, a small municipality near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She had her three children—ages 7, 5, and 2—along with her. Ashley let the children stay in her van while she ran into the store to buy a few things. She would be gone for about 10 minutes.

While Ashley was in the store, a passerby saw the children in the van and called county authorities. Cumberland County 911 dispatched Stambaugh, and Kohl’s alerted shoppers about the children over the public address system. Ashley ran out of the store and drove off because she feared that the police would take her children away, she later told Stambaugh. She returned to the store minutes after leaving and waited for the police to arrive.

When he arrived on the scene, Stambaugh arrested and charged Ashley with three counts of reckless endangerment, three counts of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle and a count of careless driving. Ashley’s 10-minute errand now meant she was facing up to two years in jail.

‘Hot car’ panic

In 1991, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 20, making it illegal to leave a child under the age of 6 alone and unattended in a vehicle “under circumstances which endanger the health, safety or welfare of the child.” Then-state Senator Roy Afflerbach introduced the bill in 1986 at the beginning of the “stranger-danger” moral panic of the 1980s and ’90s, in which high-profile deaths of children like Megan Kanka and Adam Walsh prompted lawmakers to pass severe sex offender laws that have inflated registries to nearly 1 million people. At the time, Afflerbach characterized the bill as an attempt to prevent children from being kidnapped. But the vast majority of kidnappings each year in the United States are committed by family members or someone the child knows.

The “stranger danger” panic has since subsided, but a new moral panic—the fear of children harmed by being left alone in hot cars—has emerged, giving police a new reason to use Act 20.

On average, about 38 children in the United States die from heatstroke each year after being locked inside a vehicle, according to the advocacy group Kids and Cars. While these deaths are tragic, the risk that a child will die from heatstroke in a vehicle is far lower than from other common activities thought to be safer. For perspective, twice as many children under the age of 10 were killed while riding in vehicles on the road in Pennsylvania in 2016 alone than died from heatstroke after being left inside a vehicle during the previous 20 years.

You’re not allowed to believe in reality. You’re only allowed to believe in hysteria.Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids"

But much like the “stranger danger” panic exploited a small number of horrific cases to exaggerate the dangers of child abductions by strangers, the “hot car” panic is being bolstered by only a handful of serious cases. Last year, for example, a woman was arrested and charged with manslaughter in Florida after she forgot her 1-year-old daughter in the back of her car when she went to work.

The fear of hot car deaths has prompted lawmakers to act, too. In May, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut reintroduced a bill that would require automakers to include a system to alert drivers of children in the backseat in all new vehicles.

“You’re not allowed to believe in reality,” said Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free-Range Kids.” “You’re only allowed to believe in hysteria which says the minute a child is left alone in a car they die, which just doesn’t happen.”

A 2010 study published in the journal Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology reviewed more than 200 cases where children died from hyperthermia after being locked in a vehicle in the United States. The study’s authors found in nearly 90 percent of all cases, those children were left inside the vehicle for at least an hour.

Stambaugh’s report of the Aug. 18 incident gives no indication that Ashley’s children were harmed from being left alone in the vehicle for a few minutes.

“[Children] don’t die during brief errands and yet we’ve criminalized that nonetheless,” Skenazy said. She described laws that make it illegal to allow a child to be left unattended in a vehicle as a “war on moms” and an attempt to “criminalize convenience.”

“What we’ve really just decided to do is criminalize the mom for taking her eyes off the kid and trusting that kid is going to be OK,” she said.

Criminalizing mothers

The Appeal reviewed more than 460,000 criminal dockets filed in Pennsylvania between 2016 and 2017, and identified 70 cases where a person was charged with leaving a child unattended in a vehicle: More than 60 percent of those cases involved a female defendant. The records, which account for all of the criminal cases in the state that were not expunged prior to the review, were collected by scraping the website for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Mothers who leave their children alone in a vehicle are also more harshly judged than fathers, according to a 2016 study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. Participants in the study believed a child was more at risk if a mother left their child in the car because she had to work compared to when a father had to go to work.

Nearly 20 states have laws making it a crime to leave a child in a vehicle unattended. An Arizona woman was sentenced to 18 years’ probation in 2015 for leaving her child in the car while she interviewed for a job. In Kentucky, six children who were left in a van in 2017 while their mother went into a store were later strip-searched in their home by Child Protective Services. Also in 2017, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, arrested a woman after she left her child in the car for less than 10 minutes while she ran into a grocery store.

Real costs

Though the incident outside the Kohl’s occurred nearly one year ago, Ashley’s case is still unresolved. In the meantime, she has incurred—and paid—hundreds of dollars in fines and fees, including nearly $200 for the county’s plea fee, $50 for the cost of prosecution, $100 for the disposition program and $23 for an expungement fee.

In August, Ashley is expected to enter an accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, in which she will spend the next six months to two years under probation-like supervision and perform community service with the expectation that the charges will be dismissed after successful completion. If Ashley does not finish the program, Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert could prosecute her.

“We are making a moral judgment of the mom,” Skenazy said. “We think that we’re making a scientific and clear-eyed judgment of the danger, but actually we are always judging the mom.”

Update (May 13, 2021): The Appeal has changed Ashley’s name to a pseudonym and removed a second woman’s name because their records have now been expunged.