Among the heartbreaking facts that Janette Fennell keeps track of are the names of children who have baked to death in cars. This year, so far, there have been 20 child hyperthermia deaths nationwide three of them just in the past week and that's not counting the cases where a passer-by broke into a car to rescue a child.
Fennell's Kansas-based group, Kids And Cars, keeps track of those near misses, too, so she knows about the Salt Lake man who was charged with child abuse last week after going to see a late-night showing of the new Batman movie, leaving his 2-year-old son unattended in the car. The little boy, reportedly sweating, thirsty and crying, was noticed by another moviegoer, who alerted police.
That incident comes on the heels of two Utah hyperthermia deaths, one in April, one in June, both cases where mothers forgot their children were in the car. Parents who forget are different from those who choose to leave a child unattended, Fennell says, although the result is often the same.
If she had to categorize the latter group, she says, "it's parents who put their own convenience over the safety of
child. ... It's really people tempting fate." The other group is more complicated. "It's not that they forget they have a kid," she explains. "It has more to do with how our memory works, or in this case, how our memory doesn't work." And, ironically, forgetting also has to do with the improvement in car safety.
"One of the biggest things we see," Fennell explains, "is that if we look at the number of hyperthermia deaths before 1995, they happened only once in a great while." In 1995, with the widespread use of passenger-side air bags and the resulting crusade to put children in the back seat to prevent air-bag injuries, hyperthermia deaths began to rise. The "deadly consequence," she says, is that "children are out of sight, out of mind." Add to that another safety improvement infant seats that face backward.
Forgetting also can be blamed on the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that helps us multi-task but is sensitive to stress.
Yale University psychology professor Jeremy Gray offers this list of common culprits that can impair prefrontal cortex functioning: sleep deprivation, stress from work, marital problems, heat, alcohol or drugs and certain medications that impair judgment. Add to that "doing something outside your usual routine or being distracted."
Picture this scenario, Gray says: "Being sleep-deprived from staying up all night with a newborn, you're stressed from having argued with your spouse, don't have air conditioning and it's 102 degrees, and you hardly ever take your baby shopping, but the little one falls asleep in the car, and then you are arguing with your spouse by cell phone while parking maybe you could walk away from the car by accident."
Fennell says a change in routine is often a factor, like having Dad instead of Mom dropping off the baby at day care. "In many of these cases, the parent goes to day care at the end of the day to pick up the child and they say the child was never dropped off. Then the parent goes back to the car and finds a dead baby in the car."
She offers tips to help parents jog their memory, such as keeping a teddy bear in the child's car seat when the child isn't in it; when the child is placed in the seat, put the teddy bear up front as a visual reminder that the child is still in the car. Or put your purse or briefcase in the back seat, so you'll be sure to open the back door of the car.
"Everybody thinks this could never happen to them," notes Fennell. "They're incredibly judgmental."
But we're all human, she says. The parents who have lost children to hyperthermia include a pediatrician and the CEO of a hospital.
"I try, as angry and upset as I feel," adds Janet Brooks, manager of the Child Advocacy Program at Primary Children's Medical Center, "to err on the side of generosity."
Last week, Primary's "Spot the Tot" task force, made up of health and safety educators from around the state, met to discuss the problem of parents who leave their children alone in cars. One of the participants, who is the mother of small children, noted that "I've never used drive-up windows so much in my life." She's aware, Brooks notes, "that you shouldn't leave a small child in a car even for a minute."People think that if a child is in a "safety" seat, he's safe, says Fennell. But leaving a small child alone in a car is "just as risky as leaving them around a swimming pool or any body of water."