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Father's anguish over child left in car serves as a warning

TAMPA — Reginald McKinnon has searing flashbacks to that March afternoon a year and a half ago when he held his limp baby girl in his arms.

She was already gone. He heard screaming and realized it was his own.

McKinnon, 39, has faced a criminal charge and judgmental parents. How could you leave your child in the car?

He still doesn't have a good answer. But on Friday, he had a message to share.

"This could happen to anyone," he said at a news conference outside the Westshore AAA office.

As part of Child Passenger Safety Week, car safety experts, physicians and child advocates gathered to talk about the dangers of leaving children in cars.

Some parents think they'll be gone for just a few minutes. Others, such as McKinnon, forget to take their child out — often because of a change in routine and backward-facing car seats.

Last year, 49 children in the United States died after being left in cars, according to San Francisco State University. Most victims are age 3 and younger.

The talk of hyperthermia and heat stroke was impersonal until McKinnon, of Cape Coral, told his story. He met his wife, Julia, in high school. She was a cheerleader. He played football. After attending Penn State, they married, and seven years later Julia became pregnant.

Julia McKinnon gave birth to Madison in 2005, Haley in 2006 and Payton in 2008. The couple was ecstatic with their little girls.

Then March 8, 2010 arrived.

After working a few hours, Reginald McKinnon took his youngest to the doctor. Afterward, he buckled Payton in her car seat and drove away.

It was not his normal routine, and his mind wandered. He pulled into work instead of the day care just a block away, he said. Several hours later, at the end of his workday as a supervisor at CenturyLink, he walked to his sports utility vehicle, chatting with others on the way. Then he opened the back door.

"And, to my horror, Payton was in her car seat," he said slowly, staring hard at his notes. He says he has suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He and his family have gone to counseling.

A year ago, prosecutors charged McKinnon with leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, causing great bodily harm, which is a third-degree felony. He eventually pleaded guilty to avoid jail time, he said. He got five years' probation. He resents the charge but says it's nothing compared to the pain of losing Payton. So no matter how difficult it is to talk about her death, he said he plans to for the rest of his life.

Both McKinnon and experts advise parents against relying on their memory. Instead, set up a system so your day care provider will call if you're late, they say. And put something essential — like a purse or briefcase — in the backseat as a reminder.

"Just take that extra 10 seconds," he said. "And don't be fooled into thinking this can't happen to you."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Father's anguish over child left in car serves as a warning 09/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 10:31pm]
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