Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Saddest Crimes

Sandra Parshall

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.


Anonymous said...

Can you prosecute someone for stupidity? It's hard to impose legal penalities on someone when you know they're going to have to live with the results of their idiocy for the rest of their lives.

What I think is worse is the many boyfriends who mom asks to watch the baby while she is working, and the only solution the jerks can come up with to stop the child from crying is to beat it insensible. That is criminal as well as stupid.

Anonymous said...

I don't see why crimes of stupidity or sheer carelessness should be excused. Children are a huge responsibility and the truth is few people seem to take it all that seriously. They're too easy to have and people are too busy in their lives and want someone else to be responsible for them. I know that sounds harsh, but causing a death, any death, should be punished. Being drunk and stupid was a great excuse for the longest time, now we don't accept it. Just being stupid or careless shouldn't be acceptable either.

Sarah Glenn said...

Please note: I am an amazing liberal, bleeding heart, all that stuff. However: I think there comes a point when the law needs to say, "Bull!"

(rant mode on)
How does one FORGET that there is a baby in the back seat (they make noise, even when they're sleeping, and they have various baby smells), or mysteriously not know that a car gets hot when it's left closed up in the summer? Haven't we all, at least once in our lives, get in a hot car with shorts on?

Adults should be considered capable of knowing (and remembering) important things like these. They should be charged when their children die this way: it's negligence. Being high or drunk shouldn't be an excuse, either, just the source of an additional charge.
(rant mode off)

I still remember shopping in a department store during the summer a couple of years back. The overhead system kept paging the owner of a specific car. Finally, the PA barked:
"Owner of the car with tag XXXXXX: Animal Control has arrived and they are preparing to break the window to rescue the puppy you left in your car."
A woman in the lunch area squawked and rushed out, leaving her little girl sitting alone. She knew it was her they were paging, and probably had a good idea of why.

I'm afraid I'm more than a little unforgiving of these people.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think many -- maybe most -- crimes are acts of stupidity, but that doesn't buy the perpetrators a pass. Anyone who causes the death of another person has to live with it forever, but even a confession and heartfelt expression of remorse doesn't buy a pass either.

My greatest concern is that without legal intervention there's no way to protect other children in the family from future acts of stupidity.

Joyce Tremel said...

Very thoughtful topic, Sandy.

While I feel for the parents in this situation, I'm with Sarah. There is NO WAY someone could forget they had a baby in the car.

Even though these people "don't mean" for anything to happen, or that they "were only in the store for a minute," they should be charged. There's no excuse for that kind of negligence.

Anonymous said...

I feel kind of torn about these kinds of situations. If a child is left in a car because the parent wants to gamble for an hour or go to the gym, I say they should be prosecuted. I am not sure about the going to work and forgetting them in the car situation. I actually think this is a sign of bigger issues that our American society has. We don't value our families as much as we do work and individualism. When are we going to realize we all need to help each other if we are going to survive a society. I feel like we(as a society) are falling apart.

Julia Buckley said...

Whenever my husband or I took our babies somewhere, our focus was always on the baby. Would that horn make him cry? Was he comfortable in his seat? Why was he so quiet back there? Was he choking? I don't think one moment went by that we weren't thinking of the little person in the seat, and if I was alone I would keep up a running dialogue with the baby (I talked, he listened).

To think that someone could stow a child in a car as though it were no more than a grocery bag and then disappear without remembering that child sounds like some pretty absent parenting. Are some parents unconsciously seeking escape?

caryn said...

Last summer here in St. Louis, we had two tragedies along these lines that ended up pulling the community apart racially.
First one involved a day care taking children to the Science Center on a field trip. Somehow, one of the children was left on the van. The child had fallen asleep. Anyway, he was found shortly and physically was fine. The teacher was arrested right there at the science center. Big news.
Shortly after that, a doctor and her researcher husband were running late as they arrived at the hospital complex they both worked at. The wife asked the husband to drop her off and park the car as she had an early meeting. He did. Unfortunately, since the mother usually took the baby to the child care center, the dad either thought the mom had taken the baby with her when she got her stuff from the back seat, or just didn't even think about the baby as he usually didn't deal with the morning day care drop off-the story was a little confused at that point. Anyway, the baby was left in the parked car and was noticed a couple of hours later by a passerby. The baby was already dead. No charges were filed and much was made of how sad of a loss it was for the family etc etc.
There was a huge uproar over the different treatment of the two women. The daycare worker was released from jail and ultimately the charges were dropped. She was fired of coarse.

Sharron Riddle said...

Having spent 20+ years in the insurance industry I have come to know that stupidity IS an unwritten covered peril on a policy, however - leaving a child in a hot car, whether intentionally or accidentally is GROSS NEGLIGENCE and should be prosecuted. I would not leave my dog in a hot car, much less a child and if you have a child in your car, it deserves to be your most important priority. Yes, I realize there is a lot of guilt related to the death of a child, but a death that could EASILY have been avoided had the parent just focused on the child instead of themself, is criminal.

Sandra Parshall said...

A couple of summers ago, there were three different incidents in the DC area of mothers making their children ride in the TRUNKS of their cars on very hot days. In one case it was punishment because the kids were being rowdy in the back seat, in another it was because the back seat was filled with various belongings and there wasn't room for all the kids (!), and in the other case the mother insisted the kids *wanted* to ride in the trunk. None of the children was harmed (maybe because the car's air conditioning helped keep the trunk cool? I don't know), but there were legal consequences for the adults in all three cases. Yet when a child bakes to death in a hot car, many people believe the adult should not be held responsible.

Anonymous said...

I've thought this through after having read so many of these stories. I don't believe the child was forgotten - I think the kid was left intentionally in the majority of the cases.

Some parents don't want to wake a child when they fall asleep in the car and leave them to run their errands and lose track of time. How many of us have arrived at X store/bank/market only to find our child asleep in the car seat? Yet what did we do? We either woke the kid up, carried him/her in or went home in defeat. But we didn't leave the kid in the car and then 'pop' into the store. I've been distracted, I've been tired, rushed, frustrated etc, but I've never 'forgotten' my kids in the car.

How is it even possible to forget you've got kids!! How can you carry/coax a kid out of the house, into the car, strap a kid into a car seat and then forget all that at the end of a car ride? Even babies make noise and putting them in a baby carrier in the house and carrying them to the car then putting them in the car seat attachment is not easy to do and forget. How is it that the kid was making noise at the beginning of a car ride and at the end just because they are quiet you forget they're in the car? Not possible. It's not as if they don't make themselves known 24/7. Your entire life is changed with having children, you can't forget you've got them.

Sorry I'm not buying it. I think the parents intentionally leave the children then use the forgot excuse.

Are we really sure these parents haven't hurt the kid and fake forgetting them in the car? I'm not so sure I believe when a child is found dead in a car like this it is even real. I think there may be a few cases - I pray a very few - that intend for the kid to die or perhaps have killed the child then leave them.

I 'forget' my liberal live and let live tendencies when children are harmed. People who harm children deserve only one fate - String 'em up!!

Sandra Parshall said...

Maybe there could be a crime novel in this situation -- a vigilante goes around the country killing parents who let their kids die in hot cars but were never punished for it...

Barbara D'Amato said...

Since the law required children to ride in the back seat in a child's seat, these cases have increased in number. This makes it pretty clear that in some cases the parent, facing forward as he or she got out of the car, really forgot a sleeping child. Once in a while, somebody really forgets, and it's not intentional or even stupidity. My heart goes out to those people.

Sandra Parshall said...

As I said, it must be a horrible thing to have to live with. But I think that even if a jail sentence isn't sought -- and in most cases, the remaining children will be better off if their parent isn't taken away -- I think there should be some kind of legal recognition that a life was lost. Maybe probation, with the parent required to give speeches about child safety, and definitely court oversight to make sure the rest of that person's kids are not endangered.

Anonymous said...

Every time I hear one of these stories, want to shout-- How can you FORGET your child, a person with your DNA, your quirks, your talents, how do you do that? How can you not be aware of a life living and breathing in a car seat behind you?

Can ignorance be illegal? Yes, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Especially when it results in someone's death. We prosecute stupid drivers when a traffic accident ends in death. How is this different? Just because it's your child are you really going to suffer for the rest of your life? If you were stupid enough to forget your child sitting in the back seat of your car, then you probably are stupid and insensitive enough to not have this bother you for long. Oh, well, the kid is dead-is that it? Is it that we are a disposable society, lacking in a true understanding of the most precious miracle of life.

I agree with Sarah G.- no forgiving. Leave it to God to forgive someone who kills a child through stupidity, not gonna happen with me. And, yes, Sandy, I would classify a pet in the same way. Being inhuman to a living breathing being that does not have the capacity to fight for itself is a horrific crime, not something that should be excused.

Sara Thacker said...

I don't see how you can forget your child is in the car for more than just a few minutes. I'm an obsesive type I guess. I still check the back seat of the car before I get out even though mine are almost old enough to drive.

Anonymous said...

We had a case last summer where a school administrator did the same thing. She was bringing in donuts for school, thoughtfully remembered the donuts for her staff, and left her 2 year old daughter in the car for 8 hours. The child was dead before she was found. Because she hired a county administrator as her attorney, she was not charged -- although many other minorities have been arrested for manslaughter before and after this event. She actually wanted to remain at the school and take care of other people's children, but fortunately, she was let go!!

Felicia Donovan said...

You would be amazed at how many calls my department gets for children and pets left in cars. God bless cell phones and public awareness.

I speak of this on a personal note because a friend, whom I've since lost contact with, lost her baby son many years ago when a babysitter left him in the car for 20 minutes on a 60-degree OCTOBER day. It does not matter that it isn't summer. A car interior can heat up rapidly. Unfortunately, it was too late by the time they got to him.

The one thing that allowed her to move past this was knowing that justice was served. These cases are treated with full understanding by the courts that it was not "intentional," but "negligent" nonetheless...

Felicia Donovan

Sandra Parshall said...

Children and pets are the only ones who die from excessive heat. The elderly and the disabled (not to mention the terminally stupid who insist on running four miles in 90 degree heat)are also prime candidates for heat stroke. From the Center for Disease Control (n.b. the first few words):

*Even in cool temperatures,* cars can heat up to dangerous temperatures very quickly. Even with the windows cracked open, interior temperatures can rise almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit within the first 10 minutes. Anyone left inside is at risk for serious heat-related illnesses or even death. Children who are left unattended in parked cars are at greatest risk for heat stroke, and possibly death. When traveling with children, remember to do the following:

* Never leave infants, children or pets in a parked car, even if the windows are cracked open.
* To remind yourself that a child is in the car, keep a stuffed animal in the car seat. When the child is buckled in, place the stuffed animal in the front with the driver.
* When leaving your car, check to be sure everyone is out of the car. Do not overlook any children who have fallen asleep in the car.
Personally, I think we should have hard and fast laws against leaving a child or a disabled person alone in a parked car at any time, under any circumstances.

Anonymous said...

My children and my grandchild were and are the most important things in my life. I feel terrible for those people that forget, but I just can't imagine it. If that ever happened to me, I seriously would kill myself, because I wouldn't be able to live with that. I think this is the first time I've ever said that. A child is more important than a job or an errand, or anything else in your life.