Romano: The deadly lesson Americans refuse to learn about children in cars

Published Aug. 13, 2016

By the time police arrived, the child was a pitiful mess. Her cheeks were flushed. Her sweaty hair was matted to her forehead, and her sobs were barely audible. The 3-year-old had been secured in a car seat, and locked inside an SUV in the parking lot of a Lake Wales Walmart for at least 20 minutes.

The skies were overcast on Wednesday, but the heat index was in the mid 90s in the late afternoon. Sweating while standing outside, Sgt. Bruce Yoxall knew the girl's temperature had to be soaring inside.

He told partner Matt Rhoden to smash the front passenger window and get the SUV unlocked. When Yoxall reached inside, the girl threw her arms around his neck and put her head on his shoulder.

"Unfortunately, breaking the window scared the hell out of her, and I had to talk to her to calm her down,'' Yoxall said. "It was an emotional few minutes. The EMS crew was there right behind us, and they got her out of my arms and on the way to the hospital. Thankfully, she was okay.''

The girl's father and grandmother, who came out of the store after being paged, said it was an accident. Each thought the other had the girl, even though security cameras showed the car had been parked for nearly four minutes before the two adults got out to go in the store. They were both charged with child neglect without bodily harm.

"Unbelievable,'' Yoxall would later lament.

And yet, it is entirely too common.

Since 1998, the United States has seen an average of 37 children die every year from heatstroke-related causes after being left in cars, according to research by San Jose State meteorologist and professor Jan Null. Florida accounts for one out of every nine of those deaths, which is second only to Texas.

Two days before the Lake Wales incident, Kathleen Steele left three children unattended in a minivan in St. Petersburg for at least 38 minutes. The children survived the potential heatstroke complications, but the 6-year-old boy beat his 13-day-old sister to death when she wouldn't stop fussing.

"It's a lack of awareness, and a mindset that this would never happen to me,'' said Amber Andreasen of Kids "No amount of time is safe for leaving a child alone in a car. Too many things can go terribly wrong.''

In more than half the cases nationally, the parent or caregiver said they had forgotten the child was in the backseat. A small percentage involves children who climb into unlocked cars. The rest are cases of adults intentionally leaving the child behind in a vehicle they are unable to get out of.

Twenty states have laws that make it illegal to leave a child alone in a car, including Florida. But the Florida law may have unintended consequences and is often criticized by child advocates.

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Passed in 2007, the Florida statute (316.6135) makes it a second-degree misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of 6 unattended in a car for more than 15 minutes if the car is turned off. (It is illegal to ever leave a child alone in a car that is running.) It is that 15-minute time limit that concerns experts.

"That law drives child safety advocates insane,'' said Null, the San Jose meteorologist. "I don't know if they were trying to appease anyone with that 15 minutes, but it's a stupid law. In the right situation, that could be a fatal amount of time for a child in a car.''

The law does not give parents a back-door escape if a child dies or is injured in less than 15 minutes. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said they could still be charged with child neglect or endangerment.

The fear is that the law somehow gives the impression that the state of Florida is suggesting it is okay to leave a child in a hot car for as many as 14 minutes.

"That law doesn't give parents carte blanche to leave kids in cars, but I'd be concerned that it gives the impression that you have this 15-minute (grace) period where you can't get into trouble and that's not the case,'' Gualtieri said. "The bottom line is leaving a child unattended in a car is a bad idea for any length of time. Period. And for a whole host of reasons.''

Heat-related deaths in cars have been maddeningly consistent in this country for nearly two decades. They dropped as low as 29 in 2006 and went as high as 49 in 2010, but have mostly remained static in the high 30s. And they have crossed all demographics of age, economics, race and occupation.

Nall was hopeful the highly publicized case of Justin Harris in Georgia — he's facing murder charges for leaving his son in a car in 2014— had brought more awareness to the issue. Deaths fell to 31 in 2014 and tumbled even further to 24 last year.

Yet, though this summer has yet to end, we have already seen 27 deaths, and statistics suggest the final tally will be back above 30 before September is through.

By now, these stories really should be unbelievable.

Unfortunately, they still aren't.