BY DIANE DIMOND
Three-year-old twins, children of a sheriff’s deputy, were found unresponsive inside the family pickup truck on a day temperatures were in the 90s. They were pronounced dead at the hospital.
Summer has only just arrived, but already the annual death count has begun. Record-breaking temperatures have been registered across the country, and as painful as the subject may be, reminders must be issued.
Already this year 16 children have died trapped in hot cars. Three police dogs also lost their lives the same way. Last year’s total was 25 children and 14 K-9 dogs. Since 1998, the average annual number of child heatstroke fatalities in the U.S. is 38, and since that year, 676 kids have died in this horrible organ-roasting, cardiac-arresting way.
While only 19 states have laws that make it a crime to leave a child unattended in a vehicle, prosecutors are using other laws to criminally charge caregivers of children who die this way, accident or not.
The nation’s first child heatstroke death this year underscored that tragedy can happen even on a cloudy day when temperatures are below 70 degrees, because a child’s body heat can rise up to five times faster than an adult’s. On a cold January day in Walker County, Georgia, 13-month-old Shadoe Braxton died of heatstroke after his grandmother left him in the car with the heat running while she visited with friends — for five hours. Inside the car the temperature quickly rose to over 100 degrees F. Grandma has been charged with second-degree murder and cruelty to children.
This spring, law enforcement officers working K-9 duty in Tennessee, Texas and Georgia left their canine companions in hot cars, and the dogs died. All three men have been charged with animal cruelty. At last report, the handler in Georgia was so distraught he was hospitalized and resigned his post.
Sometimes children inadvertently cause their own death. Such was the case in Houston this month, where a 3-year-old boy crawled into the back seat of the family’s unlocked car to retrieve a toy. He entered through the unlocked front door, but he couldn’t open the back door because the child protective locks were engaged. Thirty to forty-five minutes later he was found by frantic family members, but he had already gone into cardiac arrest. No charges were filed.
It is rare that anyone deliberately stages a hot-car death. This past week marked the second anniversary of the death of little Cooper Harris in Cobb County, Georgia. In this headline-grabbing case, prosecutors say the 22-month-old’s father, Justin Ross Harris, deliberately left his son in the scorching July heat. Activity on Harris’ computer and cell phone would prove he wanted a “child free life.” Investigators found searches related to babies in hot cars and how to survive in prison. Harris was also allegedly sexting with at least six different women, some of them minors, as his son struggled in his car seat on that awful day. When Harris goes on trial later this summer he’s expected to plead not guilty and maintain that the boy’s death was an accident.
Chris Wilkinson, a trauma flight medic, is a former friend of Harris who is sickened by the frequency of hot-car deaths of children, especially Cooper Harris’, given the circumstances surrounding his father’s behavior. Wilkinson has launched the internet-based campaign #2Hot2Leave seeking to educate people about how easily kids and animals can succumb in the heat of a car. Even with windows cracked the temperature can rise almost 30 degrees in 20 minutes.
Wilkinson is pushing to pass Baby Cooper’s Law, which calls for tough, mandatory penalties for those who leave children and animals to die, protection from arrest or civil suit for those who break into a car to rescue them and mandatory car-seat alarms.
“It blows my mind,” Wilkinson says, that “we can have alarms to tell you that you left your keys in the ignition or your lights on…but not that you left a living being in the car.”
Even great parents can forget a daycare drop-off when they’re tired and rushing to work. So here are some tips to pass around to parents, grandparents and caregivers: Put your purse, briefcase, cell phone or even one of your shoes in the back seat with the baby as an extra reminder. Make a pact with your sitter to call you if your child is late by 20 minutes. Teach children that the car is not a place to play. Always lock your car and keep the keys out of reach. Finally, if you see a child alone in a car, call 911 immediately. Seriously. Every minute counts.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net