It CAN Happen to You

Posted by on March 12, 2009

After reading an article in the Washington Post questioning whether accidentally leaving a child in a car (resulting in the child’s death) is a crime, my heart ached and I felt kind of sick. I always do when I think about a baby or toddler strapped into their car seat either baking or freezing to death, alone, in the backseat of a car. I really can’t even begin to articulate the sadness that ripples through me for those children and if I really think about it, for the parent(s), too.

Of course, you hear plenty of stories where people left their child in a vehicle so they could go into a bar or a casino or some other venue to engage in some activity that was purely for their own pleasure or enjoyment. They made a conscious choice to leave their baby or toddler helpless and alone and they bear total responsibility for the all too common unhappy endings that usually accompany these stories.

Those people, in my opinion, should go to prison. Not because they’re a menace to society (just to their own children) but because they deserve to be punished for the selfishness that resulted in the untold suffering and ultimate death of a child. I have no mercy for people like that. When you have a child, their safety and well-being needs to be a priority over pretty much everything else in your life. Period. If you intended to leave that child in your car, you are guilty in my eyes.

But there are other cases where people simply forgot their child was in the car with them. I know, your first instinct is to say “HOW could you forget your child?” But it happens time and again. David Diamond, a memory expert, explains why it could happen to any of us:

“Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”

Gene Weingarten, author of the Washington Post piece interviewed 13 parents who had accidentally left their children in a car, resulting in the death of their child. The common theme in their stories was a break in their routines resulting in unusual distractions. Adding stress and lack of sleep to the interruption of a routine and it’s very possible to make such a fatal error. I won’t go into all the details of how such things happen. You can read the article yourself here. My point is that those parents had no intention of harming their children. They made a mistake.

On what kind of people forget their children in a car, from the Washington Post article:

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 10 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.

I know this is true because it happened to me.

On one end of the spectrum, there have been many times when I was driving alone, which was a change of routine for me, and had a moment of panic where I feared I’d forgotten my baby because the car was so quiet and the carseat frighteningly empty. For a split-second, I’d actually forgotten that my baby was safe at home with my husband and had to think about her (and his) whereabouts. Of course, when you realize you have NOT forgotten your baby somewhere, the relief that washes over you is comforting; a feeling of decompression and release after a momentary rush of adrenalin. All is well. Your baby is in good and capable hands at home. Breathe.

On the other end of the spectrum, once when my son was a baby, he had been quietly sleeping in his carseat on the way to pick up his sister from preschool, an uncommon occurrence. I went to park in my usual spot right near the back gate but as soon as I’d parked, some men doing some kind of work in front of the building gestured that I needed to move. This annoyed me as I knew it would take another five minutes to wait for another spot to open up and get inside. It would make me late to pick up daughter and that was a cardinal sin at her preschool. I finally got a spot and dashed out of the car, my mind specifically focused on getting to my daughter’s classroom quickly as the teacher’s disapproving look could make even the most formidable parent wither in her presence.

Thanks to the break in my daily routine with the parking, my son’s falling asleep, which was unusual, and the stress of trying to get to the classroom on time, I had completely forgotten my baby in the car. I only got about thirty yards away before I realized something was missing (the frillion pound baby carrier) but as you can see, all it took was a certain combination of circumstances for me to forget, even if only for 20 seconds, that I had a baby in my car.

I hate that story. It makes me feel horrible. And until it happened to me, I could NOT understand how people could put their baby in the carseat and then forget about them. I’m sure I thought they were self-absorbed idiots who didn’t care about their kids. Now, however, I see exactly how it can happen and I have nothing but sympathy for those parents. They lost a child that was in their care and custody and they will have to live with that forever. It’s a punishment that will never end for them. No early release. No parole. Treating them like criminals and putting them in jail will never bring that child back or undo their mistake.


  • Mirinda says:

    I completely agree with you on this one. Intentional- prison, absolutely. But accidents can happen and I love how the article states our memories are NOT flawless.

    At this point I couldn’t forget a kid cause they are all so LOUD in the car. Yet I do know there were many times when all three were under the age of three…yeah, stress and no sleep can do funny things to your mind. More than once I would jump out of the car forgetting one (sleeping/quiet) babe was with me for a second. I can see where some would not remember for awhile….so, so sad.

  • Aprylsantics says:

    I’m with you on this.

  • Kim says:

    Thanks for writing this. I too have been driving and panicked when I thought I forgot the baby, then remembered where he was. And I too have forgotten the baby. Not in the car, but at home. Luckily I only drove out the driveway, but man… sleep deprivation, stress, change in routine — it definitely adds up to big mistakes. After reading the article earlier this week, I tried to explain to my boyfriend HOW it could happen, but realized I would have to wait until our baby is born so that he can experience new-parenthood for himself.

    • IzzyMom says:

      It’s true. You just don’t get how exhausting and brain-frying new parenthood is until you’ve experienced it firsthand. I remember people telling me when I was pregnant and I was all “Yeah, yeah, so I’ll be a little tired.” I learned the hard way!

  • MrsMessiness says:

    I totally get this.

    I cannot tell you how many times I check and check and check that I have not forgotten my 3 month old – because I DID forget my 12 year old once when he was a baby and I remember the horrible, sinking feeling I got when I realized that I almost left him sleeping in the car in below-zero weather. He was only there alone for a minute or two when it occured to me that it was way too easy to get the front door unlocked. Now I drive myself and my husband crazy checking and re-checking.

    I agree that these parents are bound to spend a lifetime in their own private hell without the added misery of prison time. I can’t imagine loosing a child, let-alone being the cause of their death; there is simply no easy answer to this one.

  • fiona says:

    Sounds familiar. I get how it happens – it happened to my husband when our 2nd was a new baby – for all of a few seconds. I also left the new baby at my son’s preschool in his carseat where I put him down to help my other son get all his things ready to go. Again… for a few seconds. I get how it happens but what I don’t get is how your natural sense of maternal/paternal panic doesn’t make a mental run over it and click in after a few seconds, or even minutes.

  • Grace says:

    That story makes me want to run and hug my kid, and then hug you.

  • truen says:

    absolutely! and the relief when you haven’t forgotten them- but still gives you a heart attack.

  • I watched an Oprah show with one of these parents on it once and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I can completely understand how this happens. I agree with you absolutely and wonder how other people think they are so immune to making mistakes. They have just been lucky to not have such horrific consequences.

    My closest call like this was one time when I left my infant daughter in the car parked in the driveway on a hot day with the a/c on while I did something in my house (I think I was putting groceries away b/f getting my son at preschool). I came out 10 min. later to fund that the a/c wasn’t actually on & she was roasting. If I had taken a few more minutes she probably would have passed out. Really awful things happen to people sometimes, even the kind that rarely do anything wrong.

    • IzzyMom says:

      Really awful things happen to people sometimes, even the kind that rarely do anything wrong.

      It’s so true. All it takes is one slip of the mind or lapse in judgment. Kids have no idea how hard it is to keep them alive and in one piece!

  • SciFi Dad says:

    The problem is identifying which people genuinely forget and which people are negligent. I’m no lawyer (thankfully) but from my limited understanding, failing to do something that prevents a death (if it poses no threat to yourself) makes you responsible for that death.

    Yes, the parents will live with that guilt for the rest of their lives, but who’s to say that the first group you mention won’t be tormented just the same?

    It’s certainly a complicated topic, and one that needs to be explored, but from my perspective you have to treat both types equally… a disaster resulting from a mistake is no less disastrous than one resulting from negligence.

    • IzzyMom says:

      It’s actually pretty simple to make the distinction between those who forget and those who are negligent.

      What it comes down to is intent…

      Did you intend to leave your child in the car while you went into a bar (where we all know children are NOT allowed)?

      Did you intend to not take your child to daycare and leave them in the car all day?

      If we don’t distinguish between accidents and willful disregard for the law, then every person who was driving a car and got into a wreck that resulted in the death of their child would have to be criminally prosecuted even if they weren’t intoxicated, speeding, driving recklessly, disregarding traffic lights and stop signs etc.

      If someone simply made an error in judgment or execution while driving but was not breaking the law, they would still be going to prison.

      But we don’t do that. Why? Because there was no intention to cause the accident and no willful disregard for the law.

      And that is why parents who make a mistake and leave their child in a car should not be treated the same as those who make a conscious choice to leave their child in the car.

      The law is riddled with these types of inconsistencies…

  • You know, this was EXACTLY the episode I got on Oprah about….the main guest was a mom who’s baby baked in a car for 8 hours in the summer. Of course, she died and the whole family suffered unimaginably. Part of me wanted to say HTF does that happen? And she told her side about the break in routine, her normal schedule being thrown off by one tiny element…having her kids…it’s not a tiny element. IT’S huge!

    I’m not saying I’m anyone’s perfect mom by ANY stretch of the mark…and not just because I haven’t left a kid in the car recently..holy hell am I a lousy parent some days.

    BUT, and here’s a BIG but, if the parent shows a pattern of this behavior – after the baby of the oprah mom died, her kids’ daycare provider AND a friend of the family said they know she had a tendency to leave the baby in the car while she ran in to get the older one from daycare…or into the store for bread…showing a pattern…a dangerous pattern.

    Can you judge a parent on intent? On an accident? Is it any different than the law that says if you kill your kid because of a car accident in which you were at fault, or proven negligent, it’s manslaughter?

    I have no idea.

  • Miss Britt says:

    A girlfriend and I were just talking about this and how it is horrible – but, yeah, we can actually see how it can happen. You get into a routine and your memory checks out so you can multi-task or something.

    I love you for being anti-judge-other-parents.

  • kittenpie says:

    That scares the crap out of me. I think eveyr parent has something or another or even a couple of things that they have done once and makes them really freaked out that it could have happened. For us, we once tucked Pumpkinpie into her car seat carrier with her blankies on and no belt, then carried her to the car without remembering to do up the belt. Scary. Plus, she went down the stairs so I am a compulsive gate-minder.

  • photomama says:

    I haven’t left my child in the car like this, but I once drove to work without taking him to daycarel! He was about two. We got in the car and did all the things we do when get there, buckle, turn on the radio, get settled. Well, he was really quiet back there. Usually he sang to the radio or made some noise, but not this time. For some reason I passed up daycare. I pulled into the parking lot at work and went to retrieve my bag from the back seat and found a surprise. I was very surprised. He started giggling.

  • I think we all have made a few slip-ups here and there. I can’t imagine how in the world somebody could every leave their kid in a car though.

  • I saw the original Oprah show (and a similar CSI episode) and read your post several times and I still cannot, for the life of me, imagine how this happens. I have been the exhausted mom, breastfeeding on the hour, completely drained from kids and lack of sleep. I’ve been stretched beyond the limits of stress. I’ve been that overworked parent.
    Maybe it’s the paranoid person that I am (I tend to overthink and worry a lot and am obsessive about where my children are at all times – even in the grocery store, I need them right with me the whole time or I get worried even if they are 3 feet away) but I absolutely cannot fathom how this happens. It’s not judgment, it’s the fact that I just can’t wrap my head around someone forgetting their child anywhere. Ever.
    That’s just my 2 cents tho. And I AM a paranoid freak, I know.

  • Jeri says:

    I know as a harried parent I have forgotten things I shouldn’t have. Thank goodness what I forgot only caused my embarrassment–which, thanks to my kids excellent memory continues to be a source of amusement.

    Anyway I found something that could help. I was looking for a gps tracking device for my kids and found one that has a temperature alert. If it gets too hot or cold it will send a text message to the mom’s cellphone. I found the information on a great safety blog.

    Of course it is always better to remember you kids–I pray that I only forget something unimportant like a birthday…which I have done…

  • Auto Racer says:

    I totally agree with you, those persons should hold full responsibility for their actions.
    .-= Auto Racer’s last blog post…Your Guide To Pasadena Auto Insurance =-.

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