According to the Department of Meteorology & Climate Science at San Jose State University, since 1998, 656 children have died from hyperthermia after being left in a car. So far this year, there have been 19 such deaths.
The situation is almost always the same: a parent or grandparent or guardian is having an off day. They may be overtired or stressed or otherwise distracted, but something about their routine gets disrupted. And typically the child is so quiet and out of sight that they are forgotten when the parent arrives at their destination. Hours later, either when the parent returns to the car or when their brain finally realizes their terrible mistake, their child has perished.
It’s horrifying. There’s no other word for it.
Whenever an article with one of these tragic stories is posted, I cringe knowing what the comments will hold because it’s always the same. The overwhelming majority of parents seem to think that this could never happen to them. Here are some comments from articles last month and one last week.
“What are the chances she was yapping on the phone the whole time she was driving to work, like most people seem to do these days? They can and should check phone records and then if she was, charge her.”
“She didn’t forget to put the child into the car, how can she now expect us to believe she forgot to take her out?”
“No, no, no! This is not accidental. It took 2 hours to realize a toddler was not inside? That’s BS. Every time a child is left in a car and dies, the adults should be charged with murder. No questions asked. I’m so sick of seeing these stories. I don’t care how distracted, exhausted, busy, or whatever you are, you don’t accidentally forget your child.”
“I don’t understand how anyone can “forget” there (SIC) is a child in a car… Also, the current fad of placing a toy bear or some other stuffed animal in the front seat to “remind” you that you have a child in the back seat is to me misguided. I am certain that many of those proposing such “reminders” have 100% positive motives behind their idea. But, if a person is not going to remember there is a CHILD in the car, a stuffed toy or a diaper bag is not going to make a difference.”
Now let’s be clear- these weren’t cases where a parent or grandparent left the child in the car for convenience. They didn’t leave them so they could shop unbothered or let them keep sleeping because they didn’t want them to be undernapped. They forgot that the child was there.
This mindset that tragedies only happen to “bad” parents is exactly why this keeps happening. So many people believe, with their whole heart, that this could not happen to them. They believe that they are a “good” parent, they love their child and they could never forget them, even for a minute. But what if the parents of the 19 kids who’ve died this year were also “good” parents? What if they also loved their kids? What if they, too, thought they’d never forget them?
I think that’s exactly what happened.
I think that these parents loved their kids so much that they never imagined that they’d need a reminder. I think, like the comment above, they probably thought that they would not or could not ever forget their child and thus, why put a shoe in the backseat? Why put a teddy bear in the passenger seat? If you believe yourself to be incapable of making such a mistake, why use a safeguard? It is exactly this mentality that is why this keeps happening. The shaming and judging is keeping us from seeing the real issue- hyperthermia deaths happen to the children of good parents.
If we stopped our judging for just one second and allowed ourselves to imagine a bad day, we might better understand. A day when there’s a catastrophe at work. A day when dad can’t do daycare drop off, so you go out of routine to do it yourself. A day when the baby was up all night and fell asleep in the car rather than chatting or crying the whole way. A day where you’re driving your spouse’s car where the baby is behind the driver instead of in the middle. It’s these situations that create the perfect storm. Where good parents make a mistake.
Yes, good parents. Good parents make mistakes. And that’s what happens in so many of these hyperthermia cases. And that’s why we need to stop acting like it can’t happen to us.
This could absolutely happen to me. I am the queen of car seat safety, I never, ever leave my kids unattended in the car, even if I need to run into the gas station store. My children rear face to a minimum of 4 years in a state where they could forward face at 12 months. I will harness to the limits and friends whose kids ride in my car abide by these rules too. And yet, this could happen to me. I am a good parent, but I am also a human being. I love my kids with my whole heart, would walk to the ends of the earth for them, but this could happen to me. It could.
And it could happen to you.
And that’s why we have to do something different. We have to start putting a shoe in the backseat when our kids are back there. We have to put the diaper bag in the front seat. Or we have to put a bear in the front seat whenever a child is in the car seat. If we stop pretending that we are incapable of making a mistake, we can do something to prevent that mistake from happening. It probably seems silly, but honestly, what is the downside of doing some of these tricks? There isn’t one. And it could save your child’s life. Isn’t that worth it? Maybe you think that this couldn’t happen to you, but is that a risk you’re willing to take?
I’m begging you, consider making a change. Don’t let your child become one of these statistics because you are too proud to put a safeguard in place. Maybe it can’t happen to you, but that is more true if you do something to prevent it.
If you still don’t think that this could happen to you, then I strongly encourage you to read this piece from the Washington Post a few years ago. It’s impeccably well written (won a Pulitzer) and it is absolutely heartbreaking, but it will show you how this can happen to good parents. And why prosecuting these parents isn’t the right thing to do. Which is a different issue for a different time.