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Should you leave a child alone in an idling car? Fairbanks mayor's complaint strikes a nerve

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: December 27, 2016
  • Published December 25, 2016

Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly said he didn't intend to get involved in a debate on whether parents should leave children unattended in vehicles, but after a Facebook post this week he found himself in the middle of it.

In a public Facebook post Tuesday afternoon, Matherly wrote about an encounter in the Fred Meyer West parking lot involving an unlocked car and two young children left unattended in the backseat.

The post received over 250 comments, both supporting and against his actions, and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published a story about the controversy.

In a phone interview Thursday, Matherly said he was leaving the Fairbanks store Tuesday afternoon when a man confronted him near the entrance. "Aren't you the mayor? There's a car with two kids in it and you should do something about it," Matherly said the man told him.

So Matherly decided to check it out. He found two young children in an unlocked, running vehicle. They were between the ages of 4 and 6, he said.

The car looked like it was unlocked, and he tried the handle to see if it would open. Once he realized the car wasn't locked, he worried the children could be in danger.

He waited about 10 minutes before the owner of the car walked out carrying several drinks from Starbucks. When Matherly expressed his concerns, she "blew up and left."

"She kept saying 'they're fine' and she was angry with me," he wrote in the Facebook post. "Not even a 'thank you.' Unreal. Do NOT leave your kids alone in a running car, especially with unlocked doors. And YES, (Fairbanks police) will be calling her."

Matherly said Thursday that he doesn't regret his actions. He received criticism from many different sides, including from those who warned him that he should mind his own business. But the father of six — all between the ages of 25 and 11 — said he felt like he had to take action.

"I had to wait there, there was no question," he said. "I'll take any criticisms that come my way, because it was worth it. To me, it was a no-brainer."

According to officials in Alaska law enforcement, it's not illegal to leave children in the car unattended. Some states have laws prohibiting such behavior, which are usually based on the age of children involved.

Officer Doug Welborn, Fairbanks police spokesman, said the police get "a couple" calls a month from people concerned about children left alone in cars.

"We're not inundated with them," he said.

He said officers will check on the children and assess the situation on a case-by-case basis, depending on the age of the child, weather and other factors. If a child is in danger, parents could be subject to criminal charges.

Anchorage police spokeswoman Renee Oistad said in an email that Anchorage police act in a similar manner.

"If the officer can articulate that the child was not mature enough to be left unsupervised, (then) the adult who left the child alone would be charged with either reckless endangerment or child neglect," she wrote.

In 2012, a Fairbanks woman pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment after she left her two children alone in a car in a ditch on a frigid January morning. A Juneau couple was charged in 2014 with endangering the welfare of a child by leaving two young children alone in a car with a controlled substance. Both failed to appear in court and a default judgment fined the couple $500 each.

The Alaska Office of Children's Services does not track children left unattended in cars, according to spokeswoman Susan Morgan. She said children left in cars fall into larger categories of abandonment or general neglect if any wrongdoing has taken place.

Matherly said an officer followed up with the woman to make sure everything was OK and warned her about the dangers of leaving children unattended in an unlocked vehicle. Although he's surprised at the attention the Facebook post received, Matherly said he's glad he raised the issue.

"If you're going to run in, just for a minute, fine. But lock the door and take keys at the very minimum," he said. "I think be smart about it. That's how I look at it."

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