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Whoa, Momma!

Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Tracey Henry and Suzannah DiMarzio

Child dies in hot car: Is it a tragedy or a crime?



Writer Gene Weingarten once again has written sympathetically and with common sense about the unimaginable horror of a parent forgetting a child in a hot car, causing the child to perish. He writes sympathetically because he almost did it himself and he feels that he quite likely would have been one of these awful stories if his daughter hadn't made some noise just as we he was about to exit the car.

The same fear and realization haunts me too. It's why I wrote about my close call 2 years ago urging new mothers to put their purse in the back of the car so that they are forced to look back there when they leave the vehicle. Some thought I was ludicrous to suggest a mom would care more about her purse than her baby, but we know the science of it. Don't kid yourself thinking your brain will never go on autopilot on a day you are out of your normal routine or under stress, when bad things happen to good parents.

My wake-up call came on the very first day that my youngest was starting at a day care. Before that he had been watched at home and my routine was to leave him at home, take his older brother to school and then go to work. On this day, I dropped the first grader off at school and started heading up the road like usual toward work, my mind already ticking off all the things I wanted to get finished that day and people I needed to call before lunch, the usual to-do lists that fill our days.  About five minutes into the trip, my 6-month-old baby made a gurgle sound and I quite literally jumped. He had been so silent I forgot he was back there. What if he had fallen asleep? Would I have gone into work, completely forgetting I had a baby boiling in a car? The image haunts me.

There are some simple practical things you can do to avoid this:

Florida's heat is deadly. And now that its recommended that babies stay in rear-facing car seats for 2 years, the chance of not seeing a little one back there on a day you are distracted, out of your normal routine or under stress only increases. So take these practical steps:

• Put something in the back seat that you will need at your destination, such as your briefcase, purse, cell phone or employee identification. After my scare with my little one, I always stashed my purse in the back seat with the diaper bag.

• Have your day care provider call you at all your phone numbers if your child does not show up for day care.

• Keep your car locked with the windows up, even in the driveway or garage. Keep keys out of reach of children, who can climb into unlocked vehicles.

Weingarten first wrote about this issue in 2009 (and won a Pulitzer Prize) for his Washington Post story Fatal Distraction, where he detailed the haunting stores of parents, from varying walks of life, who accidentally killed their children by forgetting them in cars. He found identical cases where one faced criminal charges and others weren't. But all who were prosecuted felt strongly that the proceedings had further damaged their families in ways difficult to repair. The families felt twice punished for something none of them saw as a crime.

In his latest piece he notes the anger of people who can't fathom why these parents shouldn't be locked up. He understands the anger, he says, because we don't want to believe this could happen to anyone.  "We don't want to face this terrifying fact. So we must convince ourselves that the people to whom it happens are unlike us. To sustain our delusion of safety, we must make them monsters."

He goes on to note that maybe his terrifying near-miss puts him in a different place. "You see my bias in this matter. I make no excuses for it. I have the facts, just as you do; the main difference is that, probably unlike you, I understand on an uncomfortably personal level that this unthinkable, impossible horror could befall anyone."

--Sharon Kennedy Wynne

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[Last modified: Monday, April 2, 2012 3:49pm]


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