How could anyone accidentally leave a child in a hot car?
South Carolina led the nation with six children dying in hot vehicles in 2018, the deadliest year in U.S. history for these tragedies, according to noheatstroke.org, a website supported by the National Safety Council.
Five of those children were left behind in vehicles by caregivers, according to KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit, while the sixth child climbed inside an unlocked car and became trapped.
Erin Holley used to ask herself the same question — how could anyone leave a child behind? Then, it happened to her.
On a steamy summer afternoon in 2017, Holley and her husband were moving into their new home on James Island near Charleston. They had just spent the past few hours using two cars to move belongings from the old house into a storage unit and their new house, all while hauling their two children, 4-year-old Teagan and 4-week-old Finn.
Both parents were sweaty and sleep deprived — like most newborns, baby Finn was refusing to sleep through the night. With the rest of the day to themselves, they decided to leave one car in a parking lot and head to the park. But when they arrived, Holley’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach.
“Oh my God, the baby!” she screamed.
Both parents thought the other had moved Finn into the car before driving to the park. It took about 20 minutes to race back to the parking lot, dialing 911 on the way. Horrified at what they may find, they opened the rear door of the SUV where Finn was sound asleep. Paramedics checked his vital signs and he was fine.
If the air conditioner hadn’t been running at full blast before they got out of the car, and if they hadn’t parked under a tree, Holley said their fate could have been different. But other parents aren’t so lucky.
Most parents believe they would never leave their child in a car, but in reality, it could happen to anyone, said David Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida who has studied memory for 40 years and hot car deaths for 15 years.
Not all of these deaths are the result of parents forgetting, however. South Carolina’s first 2019 death came in May. Four-year-old Zion Akinrefon climbed into a car outside a Blythewood home and couldn’t get out.
Today, most people know the danger of leaving a child alone in a car, Diamond said. These cases are most often associated with a failure of prospective memory — or the ability to “remember to remember.”
There are a few examples to which anyone can relate.
On the way home, you tell yourself to stop for groceries, but you forget to make that turn and wind up at home. Or you put a drink on the roof of your car as you fumble for your keys, and later drive away with the drink still on top.
When a parent straps a child into a car seat, they have to remember to take them out at the right time, and that memory can fail, Diamond said.
“It’s the same process. We get distracted,” he said, sometimes with tragic outcomes.
In rare cases, the deaths are not accidents. A Georgia man was sentenced to life in prison for intentionally leaving his child inside a hot car to die in 2014. Prosecutors argued Justin Ross Harris, who spent the last day of his son’s life sending lewd text messages to an underage paramour, killed his son to pursue other relationships, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Still, not everyone is convinced Harris did it on purpose, the AJC reported.
And research shows most hot car deaths are not intentional nor are they the the result of intentional neglect. Typically, a loving and attentive parent, who is distracted, upset or confused by a change in routine, forgets the child is in the car, according to The Washington Post’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning piece “Fatal Distraction.”
‘They’re living their own kind of hell’
Children left to die in hot cars is a relatively new phenomenon.
And then, basically overnight, children were dying in hot cars after being left behind, Rollins said.
“What we realized is that as those airbag deaths disappeared, the hot car deaths began, and there’s a very strong correlation between children riding out of sight and being unknowingly left behind,” Rollins said. “It’s one of those unintended consequences of a very important safety move in how we transport our children.”
And when a child dies in a hot car, parents are charged with a crime about 50 percent of the time, Rollins added.
“There’s really no rhyme or reason why a parent is charged,” she said. “We have cases that are just so similar, but treated so differently.”
About 90 percent of the time, Rollins said there is no evidence of alcohol or drugs and no previous involvement with child protective services. People of color and poor people have a higher chance of being charged with a crime, according to her personal observations, and it’s usually involuntary manslaughter — a crime that can come with five years in prison.
Parents usually take a plea deal, she added.
“They’re living their own kind of hell for the rest of their lives,” Rollins said. “And that’s punishment enough.”
Three out of the six S.C. cases in 2018 resulted in criminal charges; two of the defendants are black. It appears only one case is still pending while the other two cases were dismissed, according to the S.C. Judicial Branch.
Diamond has testified in court for people charged with a crime for leaving their child in a car. And in each one of those cases, the defendant never went to jail, he said. He feels it his duty to educate lawyers, judges and juries on this problem to show that there is nothing wrong with the person — it’s a function of the human brain.
“This autopilot system is really powerful. It gets us to do things automatically, and in the process, we forget what our plan was,” he said. “This happens all the time.”
‘A threat to your family’
A child’s body can start shutting down in a matter of minutes in a hot car, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.
Children’s bodies heat up three to five times faster than adults, Watt said, and organs begin to shut down when core body temperature reaches 104 degrees.
Holley knew she had dodged a tragic bullet and vowed never to tell anyone. There’s so much shame attached, including her own thoughts of being a terrible parent, and she wanted to avoid any public vitriol that almost always comes with these cases, she said.
Then 10 months later, a child in Finn’s day care died after being left in a hot car, becoming one of last year’s six deaths.
“When (the baby) died, I felt an ever-growing sense that if I had shared my story, I could have helped their family know it could happen to them,” Holley said.
Since then, she takes every opportunity to share her story with new parents and ask about their strategy to prevent the same thing from happening.
She traveled to Washington D.C. in May to testify before Congress on the Hot Cars Act of 2019, which would require all new cars to be equipped with an alert system to prevent children from being left behind.
All parents of young children should be concerned and have a strategy to prevent leaving them in a car, Holley said.
“This really is a threat to your family,” she said. Holley and her husband are “two professionals who are healthy and aware and wonderful parents, and by the grace of God, we still have two children. But it did happen to us.”
In the weeks that followed the baby’s death in 2018, she shared her story of Finn and his friend in day care with her hairdresser, who asked not to be named in this story. By the time Holley returned, the hairdresser had a story of her own. Her best friend’s baby had recently died in a hot car in Florence.
It can be awkward discussing techniques to prevent your friends and family members from leaving children behind in a car, Holley said. It’s similar to saying, “Hey, I’m worried you could leave your baby in the car.”
“It’s one of the cruelest things you could say to someone,” Holley said. “It’s also one of the nicest.”
- As you strap a child into the car seat, place something you can’t leave the car without close by. That may be a cellphone, a purse or briefcase. It can even be a shoe.
- Use external memory aids such as reminders on your cellphone, which can send daily reminders at certain times.
- Work out an agreement with your daycare to alert you if your child hasn’t been dropped off by a certain time every day.
- Keep a stuffed animal in the car seat when it’s not in use. As you strap a child into the car seat, move the stuffed animal to the front seat as a reminder that a child is in the back.
- Invest in car seat technology that alerts distracted parents that they just left a child in the car.