The saddest crimes of all are not the carefully planned murders or the violent acts committed in fits of rage – the stuff that mysteries can be built around. The saddest crimes are not acts of malice but acts of thoughtlessness, self-absorption, and ignorance. The victims are usually the most vulnerable among us, the children.
Children shoot each other with guns made too accessible by the adults in the household. They fall out of high windows that have loose screens or no screens at all. They choke to death on toys they should not have been given. They are run over in driveways because adults haven't made sure the way is clear. Children die in many ways because adults are not paying attention or have carelessly placed them in dangerous situations.
At this time of year, children die of hyperthermia (heat stroke) when they’re left too long in parked cars. It happens every year, all over the U.S. In 2007, at least 35 children ( a typical annual number) died because they were left in hot cars – and in two different cases, two siblings died together. Adults leave the kids “for just a minute” and don’t return until it’s too late. Or they simply walk off and forget the children are in the car.
In the Washington, DC, area, where I live, a 21-month-old boy died last week when his father, who was supposed to drop him off at daycare on the way to work, forgot he had the child in the back seat. The father went into his office and didn’t think about the baby again until 5 p.m., when a co-worker mentioned seeing “something” in the car. The day had been hot and steamy, a typical summer day here, and the little boy had been dead for hours by the time the paramedics were called. Police said they would charge the father with manslaughter, but the man collapsed, then entered a private mental clinic, and doctors said he was too distraught to deal with being arrested. The police agreed to wait.
Some web sites devoted to child safety offer tips for reminding yourself that you have a child in the car. Put your briefcase in the back seat too, one site recommends. The theory seems to be that you might forget your child, but you’ll never forget the briefcase containing your business papers and your Blackberry, and when you fetch it you’ll see the child too. That won’t work, of course, for the adult who intentionally leaves a youngster in a car and goes shopping or spends an hour in a fitness center.
When criminal charges are brought against parents or other caretakers who let children die in hot cars, family, friends, and neighbors rush to defend the adults, saying they’ve suffered enough, they shouldn’t be punished for an “accident” that could happen to anybody. In many places, prosecutors are likely to dismiss such child deaths as accidental and decline to press charges.
It must be a horrible thing to live with – knowing you left a helpless child in a vehicle where the temperature rose within minutes to a lethal level. But is living with the memory enough of a punishment when an innocent life has been lost? If you caused a traffic accident and killed someone because you were distracted while talking on your cell phone, you would be prosecuted, and few people would say your guilt was punishment enough. Why is forgetting a child and allowing it to die of heat stroke a more understandable and forgivable act of absentmindedness?
How do you feel about this? Should adults responsible for children’s deaths be prosecuted, or should they be sent home with a warning not to let it happen again? If you saw a child alone in a parked car on a hot day, would you call 911, or would you tell yourself the parent will probably be right back, and walk on?
If you’re inclined not to get involved, and you don’t think criminal charges should be brought in such cases, I urge you to try this: Park your car outdoors on a hot day, turn off the engine (and air conditioning), crack the window two or three inches if you believe that’s a magic solution. Then just sit there. See how long you last. Controlled studies have shown that even when the outdoor temperature is a mild 80 degrees, the temperature in a car parked outside will rise to more than 100 within 20 minutes. If the outdoor temperature is in the 90s, a vehicle rapidly becomes an oven, and leaving a window cracked has little effect. Think about the burst of hot air that hits you when you open a car that's been parked for a while, and think about a baby or a toddler left alone in such heat.
While I’m on my soapbox, I might as well throw in one more request. Please don’t leave pets in your vehicle during the summer. Your dog is no more able to survive the experience than your children are.