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Expert in 'forgotten baby syndrome' says parents' loss of awareness can be tragic

USF professor David Diamond is a leading expert in “forgotten baby syndrome.’’
Published Sep. 16, 2016

Expert in 'forgotten baby syndrome' says parents' loss of awareness can be tragic

By Claire McNeill, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer

In 2004, a reporter called professor David Diamond with a question that surprised him. How can so many parents forget their child in a car?

Sounds like negligence, Diamond thought. But his curiosity was piqued. In the years since, the University of South Florida professor of psychology, molecular pharmacology and physiology has become a leading expert in "forgotten baby syndrome."

In the hottest months of the year, about one child dies per week after being forgotten in a car. On Friday, authorities said, Hillsborough County firefighter Troy Whitaker forgot to drop off his 23-month-old son, Lawson, at a Palm Harbor day care. Over the course of eight hours in the back seat of a sweltering pickup, the child's body temperature reached 108 degrees. Whitaker said he discovered his son's body while unloading groceries.

"I can't believe I did this," a neighbor heard him scream. He faces a charge of aggravated manslaughter.

In 12 years of research, Diamond has spoken with suffering parents and listened to their unbearable 911 calls. He has studied the ways habit and memory can fail the best of parents, with a simple lapse in awareness leading to unspeakable tragedy.

"It has nothing to do with love or lack of love," he told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview on Sunday.

What did you find when you began researching "forgotten baby syndrome"?

I couldn't imagine anyone forgetting a child in a car. But because I'm a scientist, I decided to actually investigate it.

Children being forgotten in cars coincides with the development of air bags, when children were put into the back seat instead of the front seat. You just didn't see children getting forgotten before air bags developed.

How does a loving parent forget about their child?

It's not simply that they forget that they have a child. It's that they lose awareness the child is in the car. And it has nothing to do with the love, or the lack of love, that a parent has for a child.

We have enough of a database to see that there's a pattern, and it looks like the pattern in (Whitaker's) case fits very well.

What you have is some change in the routine of the parent. Imagine a parent who 100 percent of the time goes from home, takes the child to day care and goes back home. Obviously, they're not going to forget because that's their routine.

If you have another parent that 100 percent of the time goes from home to day care to work, you never see that routine fail.

Failure happens consistently when there is a parent who has changed the routine. The brain shifts you into another routine in which you're now going somewhere else.

I had a case recently where a parent would go to day care, and then he'd go to work. A very rare event is that he had to change his routine to include getting breakfast, then going to work.

One time, this parent had planned to get breakfast at McDonald's, drop off at day care, then go to work. But when he left McDonald's, he just followed his typical routine, which was to go straight to work. He had lost awareness. If you had sat next to him and asked, "Is your child in the car?" he would've said no.

These parents routinely, 100 percent of the time, will say that as they were driving they lost awareness that the child was in the car. And 100 percent of parents believed their child was where they were supposed to be. If they were supposed to be in day care, that's where they were.

We have a brain system that allows us to operate on autopilot. People hate when I compare forgetting children to forgetting other things, but the process is the same. As hard as it is to appreciate, we lose awareness of children as easily as we lose awareness of other things.

Should these parents face legal action?

If it's very clear that there was no intention to harm the child, and the parent is unaware that the child is in the car, then the person shouldn't be charged.

There is no malice. There is no negligence, because to be negligent you have to be aware at some level that you are not providing proper treatment to your child. If you have absolutely no awareness that your actions are negligent, then from a legal perspective, it is not a crime.

Does stress play a role?

Stress can be a factor because your mind is juggling memories. It's keeping track of what you're doing now, keeping track of the fact that there's a child in the back seat, keeping track of the fact that you're preparing for your exam. (Whitaker had been studying for a fire department promotional exam.) The problem is, the more stressful something it is, the more priority it gets.

What this firefighter has going on in his life is very important, but I think it's also very important to say I don't want to make excuses for anyone. Though I frankly don't think this man is looking for an excuse. None of the parents I've talked to are looking for an excuse. They just want to understand how it's possible that they can love a child so much and then leave a child in the car.

How can a parent prevent this?

My first rule is don't be complacent. Believe it can happen to you because this happens to the best parents. And don't be so judgmental.

If you're not doing the typical routine, if you're doing anything slightly out of the ordinary, then put something unique to your child in the front seat. Then you'll have a reminder. That means you have to admit that you could forget your child. It's almost impossible. When people accept that they could forget their child, it's almost as if they're saying they don't love their child enough. But I know this is not about the love a parent feels for their child.

This interview was edited and condensed. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

c. 2016 Tampa Bay Times

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