Friday, August 13, 2010

A reminder to parents

When I heard this story on the radio this morning, my heart sank. Sensitive readers should not click that link; instead, I'll give you the bare bones of the story--it's a sad case of yet another toddler dying in a hot car. Her distracted dad had picked up several of her cousins and somehow, in the mix of children entering the house and running off to play, no one realized the little one was missing. Not until it was far too late.

Every year as many as 40 children die this way. Most of the children are under the age of two, still buckled up in car seats, which have to be in the back seat and which sometimes, in the case of the youngest victims, are turned to face the back of the seat. Much of the time, the child was not left in the car purposefully (which is obviously a bad thing to do, even if the parent only intends to be away momentarily), but was overlooked somehow.

Many of the cases involve the kind of change in parental routine that's easy to understand. A father might not usually be the one who drops the baby off at the sitter's house or the day care--but today he is supposed to. A stay-at-home-mom always goes to the grocery store alone while Daddy watches the children--but today the eighteen-month-old asked to come along, then fell asleep in his car seat on the way there. Are all of these cases fatal? N0--and that's one reason why we can maintain the comfortable illusion that it only happens to one kind of parent: the bad kind. We never hear about the cases where mom and dad enter the house or the grocery store and realize five minutes later that the infant or toddler is missing.

The one thing that most parents don't want to accept is the one thing that could save children's lives: it could happen to anyone.

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his piece on hot car deaths. He describes things this way:

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

Safety products to help parents double or triple-check to make sure their children have not been left in a car exist, but have not traditionally sold as well as might be expected. They are somewhat expensive, for one thing; they don't all work consistently, and there is that problem of parental belief--the belief that this just can't happen to me.

If you read the Weingarten piece--and again, I don't recommend it for the emotionally sensitive--you'll notice that some of the parents interviewed remembered feeling exactly that way. Until it did happen to them. Until their own child died a terrible death, locked inside a hot car as temperatures soared to inhuman levels. The worst part is that there's a perfectly ordinary, if terrible, explanation as to why. It has to do with the way our memories work, and how easily we can slip into "autopilot," doing something the way we most often do it, even if today is supposed to be different. Most of the time, our tendency to operate on autopilot when we aren't supposed to is harmless, and can even be humorous. People will talk about the way they accidentally turned as though driving to work when they were on their way to Sunday Mass, for instance, or how they inadvertently threw a pair of dirty socks into the garbage instead of the laundry basket. Though we can operate on autopilot at any time, the chances are doing so are raised when we are sleep-deprived, stressed, or have a hard time focusing. Which is exactly the state of mind that parents of infants and toddlers are in, much of the time.

My children aren't babies anymore, but we did talk today about what to do in the extremely unlikely event that they somehow stayed inside a car, and somehow discovered that the door locks were stuck or didn't appear to work. We all agreed that sounding the horn should take precedence over attempting to break the window glass--thought that would remain as an option of last resort.

But for infants and toddlers, even unbuckling the car seat may be something they can't do. Or, if they do manage to get out of the seat, they might not know how to work the door locks, or how to pull open a heavy door. They rely on the adults driving them to get them out of a car safely--which is why anyone who ever drives a baby or toddler anywhere should create a memory device, routine, or trick to help them double check to see if the baby is in the car, every time they get out of it. My girls thought, at first, that the idea of reciting to themselves, if someday they are mothers of babies, something like "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, is everybody out of the car?" before locking the car doors seemed a little silly. But better to feel a little silly than to endure the devastation that forty sets of parents feel each year, when they realize that their baby has died from something that could so easily have been prevented.


bearing said...

I have always read these stories with the horrible knowledge that this could happen to me. I recognize the thought pattern that leads to that sort of forgetfulness. I've never forgotten a *child,* but I can see how I could make such a terrible mistake.

What sort of thing could you buy that would help prevent leaving someone in the car?

Red Cardigan said...

Bearing, thanks for asking that! I forgot to put in a link to the product. I will now.

Kim said...

Oh you are so right...sensitive readers should NOT click on the link. You warned me! :(

Deirdre Mundy said...

I always ALWAYS put my purse/diaper bag in the back of the minivan next to the baby's seat. Even when I'm shopping alone. So I can't go into the store/house/wherever without opening the back door and seeing either kids or empty seats.

Not a fancy device, but it works!

Thanks for posting the links (not that I read them... too sensitive.)

Whenever I see reference to a story like this, it reminds me to double, triple, and quadruple check the kids at all times.

Acerbica said...


Acerbica said...

Sorry about the "hi". Usually blogs don't let me comment the first time through.

I read that article when my son was only a few months old. I didn't sleep for several days and felt shaky and haunted. Not just because the imagery associated with a baby or toddler dying such horrible deaths is hard to process, but because I realized how at any time in the last few sleepy months I could have been that parent, and my precious child could have been that child, and realizing fully how just barely I would shy away from suicide after being guilty of it. I used to be one of those people who judged the parents harshly, thought they deserved to be shot or something. After reading it, I realized how human it is to slip up, but how dangerous it is in this case.

I always put my son's diaper bag in the front seat and my bag at his feet so that I can't really forget.

Thanks for sharing this with others.

Anonymous said...

You have done a real service with this blog post today.

I am old enough that my wee ones rode on my lap in the front seat--I think cars had seat belts at that time and I was buckled in, though I recall our first purchase after leaving the hospital was a car seat, it was more for when mother got tired of holding a squirmy child, or there was only one set of adult arms available.

bearing said...

Leaving the purse next to the carseat is a good idea but dads who keep their wallet in a back pocket might need a different strategy.

We almost always use a baby sling of some kind, so it occurred to me that one thing I could do is not to take the sling off and throw it in the backseat, but wear it while driving (or if both parents are in the car, whoever is supposed to get the baby out of the car wears the sling). Unlike a strappy/baby bjorn carrier, you can safely wear a baby sling under your seat belt. I don't think I'd get very far from the car without thinking, "Why isn't the baby in my sling?"

This would also ease my anxiety that one of these days when we are splitting up because we are late for swimming lessons at the gym, my husband and I will each think the other one has gotten the baby out of the car.

Milehimama said...

Thank you for posting this.

My cousin died this way in Tucson a few years ago. Her grandmother was keeping her and stopped by work, and forgot the child in the car. It was July.

The purse in backseat is a great idea. Another idea might be to put a pacifier or small toy on a D-ring or clip hook, and attach to your (or a family members) keys when you have the baby with you (not always, so it doesn't become autopilot).

Anonymous said...

This is so sad, and it just is more heart wrenching because it's so preventable. Thank you so much for highlighting it for all of us parents. We don't have to read the gruesome details to be helped by the reminder. I love all of the suggestions here - employing two of them would be even safer.

We lived in Austin when a father left his child in the family car when he went into work (it wasn't his day for daycare drop off). A woman reported to the security officer that a child was alone in a car, and then both of them dropped it. I can't imagine not standing beside the car until police arrived (the woman didn't show the guard where the car was, and the guard gave up looking). I'm sorry, but it cannot be an accident when three adults abandoned this child.

Just this week (close to Corpus Christi, where we live now) parents were arrested for the death of their 18 mo old who was trapped in a car. There was evidence of abject neglect in that instance, and the death of the child revealed other abuse issues in the home.

I hope we can carefully discern the difference between accident and neglect. At this point, given the awareness of how often children are left in cars, for whatever reason, doing so should perhaps be elevated to neglect status, period. "That could never happen to me" isn't a defense, it's merely denial, and ultimately a lack of humility. I don't see how enabling that sort of thinking is going to help the victims or their parents in these cases. I am not qualified spiritually or legally to judge those who have experienced this double tragedy of losing a child and bearing the responsibility for it. But I absolutely judge the parents who read of it, and set it aside as a "them, not me" problem. I suspect that kind of thinking has lead to the deaths of many children, in many other entirely preventable circumstances.

Red Cardigan said...

Milehimama, I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. How sad for your cousin's family and for the child's grandmother, too.

Cottage Child, the situation you describe is horrifying--there really is no excuse there. But for most of these situations, the parent really isn't a neglectful parent. Some of them are ultra safety-minded, so much so that they buy big, heavy carseats and those attachable window blinds to keep the sun out of baby's eyes--and both of these things make it harder to see the baby when you get out of the car.

Sometimes the parents already have a pattern of abuse and neglect, and are likely to be charged in the death of their child. But if you can stomach the Weingarten article, you'll see how these cases defy a simple explanation. Overtired parents used to following one routine get thrown out of the pattern for some reason or other--and tragedy happens.

Anonymous said...

I am agreeing with the spirit of your post, and certainly didn't mean to sound as uncharitable as I'm afraid I did in my comment. I'm so sorry. The fact remains that most small children who die accidentally do so in the care of a parent - mother, actually. There are so many things that could go wrong in our day to day parenting, it's a wonder they don't more often. Grace abounds, fortunately.

I am hoping that awareness of what are largely "lifestyle" accidents - pool drownings, accidental shootings, carseat leave behinds, that sort of thing - will be elevated to the point that the responsibility (or lack thereof) has consequences. Once upon a time, driving after a few cocktails and having a car wreck was considered just an unfortunate accident. Now that we know better, we know better. If we don't, there are significant consequences.

I don't mean to belabor the issue, I just wanted to clarify that I'm not insensitive to the awful place the parents of these victims are left in, and that the "lifestyle" element of overstressed and distracted parents begs a host of sociological and religious questions, and that I realize that is NOT your point. All this to say I truly do appreciate your broaching the subject so thoughtfully. It just is so sad.

Lauretta said...

Didn't Mr. Weingarten give the solution to the problem? Put the car seats back in the front seat so you don't forget! All cars should have a switch so that the air bag can be turned off. Someone should do a search and see if more babies died from sitting in the front seat before or from being forgotten in the back seat now. We might be safetying ourselves into killing more people.

Rebecca in CA said...

Man, I just don't see how punishing the parents is going to help anything. I mean, am I really going to be nonchalant if I think the consequence might be the death of my child, but be ultra-wary if I know I might go to *jail* because of it? I don't think more state involvement, more blaming and punishing should be part of the answer. Let's just get the info out there, remind one another, and be compassionate. There are many, many times in my parental life that I have actually forgotten that I had three rather than two children, or that I had a newborn. Not for long, but still, there is human weakness and always will be.

Rebecca in CA said...

Four, actually. I have four children.

Anonymous said...

The problem with putting kids back in the front seat is that I'm pretty sure that's the most deadly seat in the vehicle in most crashes for anyone.

When I was in first grade, I missed the bus one morning, and my dad had to take me to school. Usually, he just went to work on his own. I sat quietly in the back seat. When he didn't take the normal turn to go to my school, I just thought he was taking a different route. I didn't say anything. We were heading out of town when I asked him where we were going. He was very startled; he had completely forgotten I was there. I got to school a little late, he got to work a little late, and everything was fine. That kind of thing really can happen to anybody. Luckily, when it happened to us, I was old enough to talk.

It seems to me that this would be a good topic to cover in childbirth preparation classes. And it's probably a good idea to get in the habit of checking each carseat every time you go anywhere, just to be sure.

I feel so sorry for the kids and parents this has happened to. I can't imagine living with myself afterwards, even knowing it was just an accident. Those poor people.

--Elizabeth B.

eulogos said...

I know a nurse this happened to, in that her husband left the baby in the car while she was working.
He was cooking, and a child brought he something he had taken from a neighbor's yard. The father interpreted this as stealing, and insisted that the child had to return it right now. He put all the kids in the van, baby in the carseat, and drove to the neighbors. Got back, realized something was burning in the oven, ran in and forgot baby in carseat.
One of the other children reminded him after a while. It was a hot day.

Baby didn't die but came into ER, with serious hyperthermia. Maybe 20 more minutes, the kid would have been dead.

I think we should be able to turn off airbags and put babies in the front seat. I had mine before airbags and always had them there. I wouldn't have been able to fit all my kids in the car in any case without having some child in the front seat! As it was I had to have extra seat belts installed in the car.

But, in case I ever have to take a small grandchild somewhere, I am going to remember putting my purse by the baby, and "Twinkle twinkle little star/is everybody out of the car"! Thanks to Red Cardigan's daughters for that.

Susan Peterson