We've all read these stories: Infant left alone in car for hours. Infant dies of hyperthermia. I remember reading one news article about a mother who left 2 children alone in a car on a hot day while she went to get her hair and nails done. Both died. Horrifying. One thinks: Of course! These parents should be convicted . . . of something. Or should they?
The Washington Post yesterday won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for a story about several parents who made a horrible mistake. They drove to work. They parked their cars. They did not remember that they had not dropped their infant off at the day-care. The child died in the car as the temperature rose. What kind of parents do this?
Writer for the Washington Post, Gene Weingarten says: "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."
Were these deaths the result of felonious action? Weingarten reported that "according to statistics compiled by a national child's safety advocacy group, in about 40 percent of cases authorities examine the evidence, determine that the child's death was a terrible accident -- a mistake of memory that delivers a lifelong sentence of guilt far greater than any a judge or jury could mete out -- and file no charges. In the other 60 percent of the cases, parsing essentially identical facts and applying them to essentially identical laws, authorities decide that the negligence was so great and the injury so grievous that it must be called a felony, and it must be aggressively pursued."
My mind set as I began to read Weingarten's story was colored by my memory of the children who died while their mother dallied in a beauty parlor. But Weingarten helped me sort out this: these deaths, to result from a felony, had to have intent behind them. It was so clear from what he wrote that, of course, those parents did not intentionally abandon their children in a closed vehicle on a hot day with the intent that the children would die.
I remember a sunny summer day in 1966 when I visited Dachau . . . 4 hours in the museum . . . I recall walking out into a grey dismal day, to face gravel surrounding the foundations of barracks that had once held unfortunate prisoners whose only "crime" was that they were Jewish. And there were the crematoria. And I knew that I would never be the same again.
Weingarten's feature article made me feel the same way. After reading it, I know that I will never again look at a case like this with yesterday's eyes. I am changed forever.
Some ideas are offered about how to eliminate these tragedies. Please read them. Please take the time to leave your ideas below in the comment section. You may read Weingarten's prize-winning article here: "Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?" Summer is upon us. Think about forwarding a link to families of young children that you know.