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No More Children Forgotten in Cars (Part 1)

So far in 2009, 29 children have died after being left in a hot car. They died from hyperthermia. I am sure there are hundreds of little ones who did not die, but could have. I am sure there are thousands who have been left in the car for a moment. This is not okay. It does not take a long time for a car to heat up above 107 degrees. And that temperature is lethal for humans. More than 50 percent of these deaths were kids under two—many of whom were asleep. They did not make any noises when the car was parked.

I think about this a lot when I worry about the biggest mistakes a parent or caregiver can make. Earlier this week I was reminded that I wanted to express my thoughts on this topic and perhaps some ideas and resources to help us avoid this terrible tragedy. It took me a few days to put my thoughts together. The information out there is heartbreaking. See this fact sheet for more information on hyperthermia deaths.

First, Some Background and Sensitivity Training
The Washington Post called it “Fatal Distraction” in March 2009, when staff writer Gene Weingarten wrote about the difficulty in assessing the criminal nature of a child’s death by hyperthermia (or heatstroke) when the parent made a fatal mistake—he or she forgot their child or children in the car. (Please see also the transcript of Gene’s live discussion after the huge response his article received.) These are parents who deeply love their children. They will be haunted for the rest of their lives by their mistake. I am in tears again and I have read the article and many others so many times. Gene admits that he had a moment in his past where his daughter made a noise in a parking lot and he remembered she was there. He had forgotten. He was overcome with nausea. Thank God he did not get out of the car. Thank God she made a noise. He felt like he had to write this piece. Sometimes it just takes the smallest thing to bring us back from our modern day distracted reality.

I hear this a lot: “What kind of parent could do that?” I have read a number of articles over the last year that made me realize it could be any of us. Seriously. Our brains are not perfect. And the part of our brain that deals with memory and complex routines—the pre-frontal cortex—helps us to multitask and make finely tuned decisions but is also sensitive to stress and changes in a NORMAL routine. Read the article for a much better description. Basically, under stress the boobie part of your brain, the basal ganglia, takes over and you go on autopilot. Unless something jogs your good brain – you could forget anything—even your child. I will not spend a long time on specific stories of heartbroken parents but I will post the list of people Gene interviewed—the list of what kind of parent could do that. It is terrifying and very sobering. The following is taken from Gene’s article.

What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor. And the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last ten years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist …

The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.

See? They are not all drunk or on drugs. They are not “those” parents who you would never associate with. They are people, just like you and me, who never thought they would do that. Let’s keep any “better than you claws” in and focus on how to avoid this situation. We are not, any of us, perfect.

Originally published on Mommy Words on September 4, 2009

Part 1 | (Part 2)

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