Family Matters

Would You Forget Your Baby in a Hot Car?

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It’s hard to imagine being Mary Parks, who three years ago unwittingly left her 23-month-old son, Juan, in her car while she went to work. With temperatures in the 80s that day, the baby didn’t stand a chance. But Parks’ horror story isn’t an anomaly. Last year, 49 U.S. children succumbed to heatstroke after being forgotten in hot cars.

With much of the nation already simmering, a Detroit Free Press report on the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars is worth a read. Its eye-opening takeaway: parents often don’t pay attention to information campaigns cautioning them about leaving their kids behind in the car because they think the nightmare scenario couldn’t ever happen to them.

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I have to admit, I’m of the same mind. I mean, really, how could anyone leave their kid in the car? But hearing Parks’ story unfold, the possibility becomes more plausible.

An accountant from Blacksburg, Va., Parks told the Free Press that she was exhausted after weeks of being up at night with her sick kids. That day, her 4-year-old son, Byron, stayed home with her husband and she put baby Juan in the car to take him to day care:

“It’s not really that you forget,” she says. “I call it misremembering.”

Somehow she drove straight to work but was sure she had dropped Juan off at the nearby day care. Usually Byron, who was talkative in the car, was also with her, but Juan just quietly went to sleep in the car seat behind her.

At the parking lot at work, she grabbed her purse from the front seat, went in and had a normal day. She even told others she might have to take off early to pick up Juan at day care because he was still somewhat sick.

When she got there, the staff told her that Juan had never arrived.

Parks was charged with manslaughter and felony child abuse, though prosecutors eventually dismissed the charges.

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Juan was one of nearly 500 children who died after being left in hot cars from 1998 to 2010. Although summer’s not officially in high gear, temps have already soared in much of the South, where three children died in cars in May.

Experts are concerned that a new recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advises parents to keep children in rear-facing car seats until at least their second birthday, could nudge the death rate higher; it may make it more likely that they’ll be forgetten. The number of kids who died locked in cars jumped in the 1990s when rear-facing seats were promoted to avoid air-bag fatalities.

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Some experts recommend putting an essential item in the back seat — a purse or a briefcase, for example — to remind parents to take their kids out of the car.

Janette Fennell tracks automobile-related deaths in hot cars for her Kansas-based non-profit, Kids and Cars. She says it’s easier than you might think to lock your car, leaving your child behind. “They think of the people this happened to as monsters, and they don’t put in place the safeguards you should,” she told the Free Press. “If you have the ability to forget your cell phone, you can forget your child.”