A horrible mistake or a horrible crime?

By Melissa Martin

How can a parent mistakenly leave a baby in a car? Accidents happen. But how does a parent work the entire day and forget his/her most precious gift is strapped into a car seat—trapped inside a sweltering vehicle?

Did you know that 2018 was the deadliest year in US history for child hot car deaths? In 2018, 52 children died in hot cars. Since 1998, almost 800 children have died from vehicular heatstroke. That’s according to The National Safety Council. www.nsc.org.

Of the 800 deceased children 54 percent were forgotten by a caregiver. www.noheatstroke.org.

Other parents and people around the globe often rush to judgment when a child dies in a hot car. “Lock’em up and throw away the key!” or “That would never happen to me in a bazillion years!” or “How is it possible that a caregiver could forget a child in a car?”

I, too, rushed to my own conclusions. Thinking about parents so busy running round-and-round on the hamster wheel that they forgot their own child. How could they be so stressed or so self-absorbed?

But, as I read the 2009 article “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?” my tears kindled compassion, sorrow, and sadness for the suffering parents. Gene Weingarten’s article detailing the life-stopping, life-traumatizing, and life-changing, stories of Miles Harrison and other parents changed my belief.

“The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer — beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone — he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care,” penned Weingarten. “The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July.” Grab a box of tissues and read Weingarten’s article at www.kidsandcars.org. Weingarten won a Pulitzer for his story which was first published in The Washington Post.

In the 1990s, the introduction of passenger side airbags made it unsafe to put small children in the front seat, and several states passed laws requiring children to ride in the back. www.thecrimereport.org.

Neuroscientist David Diamond, a professor at the University of South Florida, studies how normal (i.e., attentive and loving) parents and caretakers, without evidence of abuse or neglect of children, and without evidence of drug abuse or organic brain dysfunction, unintentionally and unknowingly, leave children in cars.

Since 1990, 146 parents/caretakers have been convicted on charges ranging from murder to negligence in heat stroke fatalities after forgetting their child was in the vehicle, according to KidsAndCars.org.

Should a parent be charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison for unintentionally forgetting an infant or toddler in a car? Is it a horrible mistake or a horrible crime?

It’s a horrible mistake. A gut-wrenching mistake. A traumatic mistake. But, it’s a mistake.

These unintentional and unfortunate deaths are the result of human error. Families are further traumatized when police and prosecuting attorneys pay attention to public outrage and proceed with probation or prison sentences.

What say you?


By Melissa Martin