Kids in Hot Cars: Neglect or Not?

Photo Credit: Safe Kids USA

Photo Credit: Safe Kids USA

It’s happening again. Last week – it happened two times in the DC area within days. Last month, 7 kids died in 4 different states within two weeks. It’s a totally preventable, horrific and unnecessary death when parents or caregivers forget a child is in the backseat of a car and the child dies after being left in the heat in a car. It happens every single year, unfortunately.

Several years ago, Gene Weingarten wrote a chilling and incredibly thorough piece on this issue of Kids and Cars in the Washington Post magazine. If you didn’t read it then, I’d encourage you to read it now.

It is a long read and it is a really difficult read. I distinctly remember it took me almost a week because I had to break it up into sections. What he does very well is examine all sides of the issue – in particular the perspective that is so difficult for many of us to accept – HOW CAN THIS BE? Look, if you read my below piece that I wrote back in July 2011, you’ll realize very quickly that I am incredibly firm in my belief that it is neglect on the part of whomever has left this child in the car. Despite those feelings, it’s still important to get a perspective on how the brain functions, how it actually is possible to forget a child. Weingarten’s piece will give you that perspective. The psychologist he interviews pointedly notes that if you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you’re capable of forgetting your child.

After re-reading that portion of the interview, I couldn’t help but wonder, if that same sound bite would prove true today. Back in 2009, we weren’t as addicted to our phones as we are now — they weren’t quite so smart — so is it still true?

The other perspective you’ll get from reading the piece is the horrific way a child dies when they are left inside a hot vehicle. One child pulled all her hair out in that process.

That is what I think about when I’m criticized for being judgmental of the parents who forget their kids in the back of the car. How about the kid?

Yet a few months ago, my husband came home one day and said to me “Now I think I can see how someone could forget their kid in the backseat of the car.”

Our youngest had taken to falling asleep in the car, something neither of our kids had really ever done before and we’d moved her up to a booster seat from her convertible car seat. In our Jeep, the way the seats are and the height of the new bigger kid car seat, suddenly it meant that unless you turned the rear view mirror down to deliberately see her – you could no longer see her when looking in that mirror.  In that moment – I knew he was right – for the first time – I could actually realize with my own two eyes how something this horrific could happen.

Even so, I still firmly believe it’s neglect and it’s a crime.

Want to know what else I think? I think that every time a child dies from being left in a hot car, every single one of us needs to slow down and take stock of our own lives. Parsing out the instances where it was a parent deliberately leaving the child, each case shares one common trait – a change in routine, a busy hectic schedule, a tired parent, pulled in too many directions:  a recipe for disaster.

No matter your feelings, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of blame, anger and neglect – we all need to slow down and think about it for a few minutes.

If you want to read more – I’m including the piece I posted back in July 2011 when this was a hot topic in the DC area because of the Virginia mother who left her child in the car. If you read all the way to the end, you’ll appreciate the reminder that it was written a few years ago because I toss in a Casey Anthony reference. Forget about her?


Every summer stories break that a parent changes his or her routine, forgets to take the child to daycare, instead goes to work and leaves their own child unattended in a hot scorching car for 7 or 8 hours, only to ultimately find the child dead at the end of the work day. It’s a horrible story. It’s a story that no one is comfortable with. But what shocks me every time is how forgiving the public is of these parents who fail to remember their own kid in the back seat of a car all day long.

In Sunday’s Washington Post there was an oped written by Molly Roberts on the recent case of the veterinarian from Virginia who left her child unattended for 7 hours last month and the child died. Sunday’s piece, “A Baby is dead. Was it a crime?”, initially infuriated me. Roberts clearly is very uncomfortable with accusing a seemingly loving mother, a smart educated mother, a mother who is maybe – on paper – like Roberts: smart, focused, driven, successful. Roberts, in her piece,  is unwilling to admit that this mother is guilty of neglect even though she concedes it is neglectful to forget a child in a car because we can’t prove that this woman INTENDED to neglect her child.

Ok – so along the path of keeping our children safe – we’re supposed to look kindly on neglect cases where the parent didn’t actually MEAN to inflict any harm on the child. And in this case, the ultimate worst kind of harm, the death of a child. What does the child say about this? How do we protect the innocent if we allow for neglect when it wasn’t intended?

I think what this story, and the shockingly endless stories like this, is really about is this: we can RELATE to this form of neglect. We are all running around, harried, stretched too thin, with schedules too busy and jam-packed. Our minds are racing, our brains overcrowded with to-do lists and deadlines. We can RELATE to how easy it might be to change-up our schedule and forget something, even something as beloved as our child.

So we don’t feel comfortable prosecuting these grieving parents.  We can’t relate to drug-addicted moms who didn’t mean to leave their pipes lying around for the  kid to pick up and use. We can’t relate to parents who drive drunk with their kids in the back of the car. We can’t relate to parents who leave loaded guns in their homes and the child finds it and uses it. But we CAN relate to busy, over-worked and stressed out parents. So we don’t want to hold  them accountable in the court system because it hits close to home.

I’ll be honest: I don’t relate to it and I find it neglectful. I think they should be prosecuted, no matter the profound level of pain and trauma they feel for their horrible mistake. Am I a perfect parent who never makes mistakes? Of course not. But who goes 7 or 8 hours without thinking of their child? How is this possible? I don’t care how busy your day is and what life-saving miracles you might be performing at work – forgetting a child and leaving them to suffer a horrible experience in the back of a hot car is neglect.

Whether we are comfortable saying it, whether we can relate to how it could happen or not – if a child ends up dead – someone should be accountable for it.  Unless, apparently, you live in the state of Florida and your name is Casey Anthony.


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17 Responses to Kids in Hot Cars: Neglect or Not?
  1. Bridget
    July 19, 2011 | 3:13 pm

    Apparently, this was not the first time the woman left the kid in the car. The first time, the kid survived. The second, not so lucky. That, to me, makes it extremely unacceptable. And prosecutable (Is that even a word?). Sad.

  2. Bridget
    July 19, 2011 | 3:16 pm

    One more thing…you’re paying all this money for daycare – why on Earth aren’t they calling when your child doesn’t show up? This tragedy is by no means the fault of the daycare, but I’m floored that they didn’t follow up on a no-show child.

  3. mjg
    July 19, 2011 | 6:48 pm

    I agree with you. This is murder by neglect. A parent does not forget the existence of a child by hiding behind the veil of being too busy. Please, I do not feel sorry for someone who takes a life of a child by merely not seeing to that child’s well being. How is this type of abuse any different from starving, burning, hitting or molesting a child .It is blatant ABUSE !!! The parent is criminally negligent and should be so prosecuted. I even find this more appalling that she was a professionally trained vet. Obviously , she cares more for the animals than her own child. Strange priorities!!!!!!

  4. Missy | The Literal Mom
    July 20, 2011 | 2:18 am

    “Roberts, in her piece, is unwilling to admit that this mother is guilty of neglect even though she concedes it is neglectful to forget a child in a car because we can’t prove that this woman INTENDED to neglect her child.”

    Uh, I may be parsing words and definitions here, but isn’t neglect defined as somewhat unintentional – to “fail” to care for? Otherwise it would be “wilful,” or “intended,” right? Kind of like negligence. The whole cause of negligence arises out of NOT doing something purposefully or INTENTIONAL. I see neglect the same way.

    Great, great post. Totally a new follower – I need to keep up with you!

  5. Mimi
    July 20, 2011 | 12:36 pm

    I find it obscene to pile on a woman who has just inadvertently killed her own child. Can you even begin to imagine how that must feel? Her own misery is likely so great that the fact that other mothers are tsk-tsking and being judgmental on their blogs is just a drop in the ocean, but really: it’s cruel. She made a horrific error, and she will pay for it the rest of her life, no matter what the criminal justice system or the saintly mommy chorus have to say about it. Try to have some compassion, and yes, read the Gene Weingarten Washington Post article so you have a better idea of what you’re talking about before you get on your high horse.

  6. Monica Sakala
    July 20, 2011 | 7:49 pm

    Hi everyone – Wired Momma here. Thanks for all the comments so far – both here and on some neighborhood listservs. Many people have referenced the 2009 Washington Post Magazine cover story on this same issue written by Gene Weingarten – and I actually read it at the time with great interest and recall it quite clearly. I found it to be a haunting and informative read. Like many others, I had to break it up and read it over a few days because it was so upsetting. That said, I think this issue is a really important one to discuss because stories like this pop up every single summer. And I find this particular case to be especially egregious because this was the second time this mother left her child in a car unattended. I initially avoided this topic because it is so controversial but then the Post oped was the nail in the coffin for me and I couldn’t bite my tongue any more. No matter how uncomfortable I am attacking a grieving parent – and how could I not be – the bottom line is a child is dead and we can’t and shouldn’t ignore it. If nothing else, because these stories pop up every single summer and share the common thread of: routine changing, stressed out and overworked parent – I can’t help but wonder if talking about it and debating it also prompts us to think harder next time? Does it give us pause to stop, slow down and evaluate if we are working too hard, stretching ourselves too thin? I think so – and I hope so. What these parents are going through is horrible and unspeakable but so was what that young child went through. I’m sorry for their loss and I wonder what it will take for these tragedies – which are completely preventable – to stop happening.

  7. workout mommy
    July 21, 2011 | 2:10 pm

    I completely agree with you. Yes, this is a horrible tragedy that this woman will have to pay for the rest of her life but what message does it send if she is not prosecuted? Had it been the babysitter you bet this family would have been calling for absolute prosecution! and the fact that it was a repeat offense just makes it that much worse!

    One more thought…if she is not prosecuted, what is to stop a parent who wants to kill their child from leaving him/her in the car and then claiming he/she “forgot”?

  8. workout mommy
    July 21, 2011 | 2:15 pm

    i also have to add there is piece missing in the story. She drove to work for an emergency in the morning and then drove back home for the rest of the day. Her son was in the car the ENTIRE time so she missed him more than once!
    He was discovered in her own driveway after the 4pm phone call from the husband at daycare.

    How could she not see him when she drove home from work that morning? Did she not look in her mirrors?

    (this took place in my town)

  9. Zulma
    July 21, 2011 | 3:07 pm

    I’m a new follower (kind of-I’m on year 2008) and from my personal point of view, like you said, no matter how bad this parent is feeling, just imagine (even if for a second), the horrific death this poor child went through!!! Just think of it!!! The scorching heat, not being able to breathe, having no way of escaping, calling for your mom, crying! Thinking about it brings tears to my eyes, a lump to my throat and a horrible need to punish this parent for this innocent child. And no, I’m not trying to be saintly but I’m an overworked parent myself who’s always on the go as well, but God help me, if I ever did this to my children, I would welcome any and all punishment because I did not do my job as my children’s mom and that is to ultimately protect them.

    So yes, I will be judgemental and horrible because absolutely nothing makes me forget that I have children.

    And the fact that this blog is up, and that this subject is being brought up, makes me check (even after I know my children have been dropped off) my back seat just one more time.

  10. Monica Sakala
    July 21, 2011 | 6:59 pm

    Hi everyone – wired momma here again. I really appreciate the new comments. First of all, since I read Workout Mommy’s comment earlier today, I can’t stop thinking about this case – how is it possible that this child was left in the car in his own driveway? How could she have gotten back in a second time and not realized the baby was there? Was the child drugged? seriously? And Zulma – thank you for reading and for your support! You hit right on why I was compelled to write so honestly how I feel about this tragedy – hopefully it gives us all pause to just slow down and remember that there’s nothing more important than our kids.

  11. MAM
    July 9, 2013 | 1:46 pm
  12. Monica Sakala
    July 9, 2013 | 1:58 pm

    Meg – thanks for sharing the PSA – it’s well done – and I noticed how adorable James looks!

  13. Julie
    July 9, 2013 | 6:01 pm

    I find it obscene that you use the comparison of drug-addicted mothers. This is not an apples to apples comparison. Every moment of every day drug-addicts chose themselves and their addictions over the needs of their child. The majority (I say this realizing there are outliers) of these child-car incidences in these stories are not pre-meditated, the parents do not do it every day, they were momentary accidents, amplified by the psychology of distraction.

    “We’re supposed to look kindly on neglect cases where the parent didn’t actually MEAN to inflict any harm on the child” – so in your opinion every child that dies by choking, drowning, crib suffocation or other accidents that their parent(s) should be charged and incarcerated for neglect?

    My first child screamed all the time in the car, so I always wondered how deaths like this could ever possibly happen. But last year, desperately sleep deprived, I actually stepped onto the side-walk before remembering my second child, a peacefully quiet 1-month old infant, asleep in the back of the car. That day I was lucky, I remembered, I turned back. The rest of the day I couldn’t stop shaking, I was sick to my stomach, when I returned home I cried, I could barely admit to my husband what I had almost done. When I tried to tell him, his response was “don’t say that, I don’t want to hear it”. I had judged those other women before, cast them as monsters, stupid fools, and then in a split moment, I almost DID it myself, but by some stroke of luck I remembered, I turned back.

    The is topic is emotional, polarizing, horrifying and disgusting all at the same time. But I will not judge these women. I grieve for them and their child who died under unfathomable circumstances. Ever every day for the rest of their life those mothers will live with this ghost. Each time they see a child they will be a haunted by the child they lost. Our current incineration system doesn’t prevent any other crime; so why would incarcerating these parents for their horrible grave mistake prevent a deranged parent who would pre-meditate this way of killing their child?

    Luck is not everlasting. Mistakes and accidents happen all the time. But casting “neglect” on all parents that don’t actually intend to inflict harm – well fellow momma’s I hope for you that your luck is everlasting.

  14. Monica Sakala
    July 9, 2013 | 6:27 pm

    Julie – I think you make some really great points and I respect your very balanced and empathetic view point. Two things – in your instance – you quickly remembered and were shaken for a long time. Where I get tripped up in these instances is this – how do 8 hour pass and someone doesn’t make a connection about their child or call to check or something? I get really tripped up in that scenario. In the instance of the Virginia mother from two summers ago, which the blog post was response too back in 2011, that mother actually was in and out of the car 2x without realizing her son was there and it was the second time she’d forgotten her child. The first time – she got lucky. So again, to your point, you very briefly forgot and then remembered and were shaken. What happened to that mother? Here’s the deal – every case is different, each of the circumstances are different – and judging a grieving parent is harsh but I don’t think it’s unreasonable. The broader point I was attempting to make in bringing all this back up again was this – hopefully what these cases do beyond cause us to bicker or judge – is to take stock of our own lives and slow down if we are really harried like so many of these parents were too. I don’t believe it’s technology and alarms to warn parents that they’ve forgotten a child that’s going to put an end to these horrible situations – it’s ourselves – our frenetic paces – that has so much to do with it. But maybe others disagree? And I think it’s especially healthy to debate this topic because again – it puts it in our heads – it scares us – which isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think.

    • Julie
      July 9, 2013 | 8:12 pm

      Discussing and educating new parents on the topic is important. The debate and casting large judgmental stones is less important. Gene’s article should required reading for all expecting parents and an discussed at a well-child visit.

      The first mistake we all make, is believing this would never happen to you.

  15. ashley s
    July 9, 2013 | 7:02 pm

    First- well said Julie. Well said.

    I’ve read your post/post-within-a-post several times. Also read Weingarten’s amazing piece.
    And I understand what you are saying regarding “neglect”.
    That is, at the core, what this is.
    I also agree with Julie’s points re:crimialization/incareration of these parents.

    But you keep alleging that these parents are not thinking about their kids for 8 hours…that’s a leap I am not willing to take. I think about my kids all the time. All.The.Time…But I would never put them in harms way on purpose, with the intent to hurt them.

    To me that’s like the old conversation we’ve all had when you’ve lost your keys and your hubs asks you for the 100th time “where did you put the keys???” and you reply (likely with foul language) “IF I KNEW WHERE THE *&%$ing KEYS WERE I WOULD TELL YOU”.

    These parents did not intentionally leave their kids in the car. If they knew they left their kids in the car, I have to, for the sake of humanity, trust/believe/hope/pray they would get the kids from the car immediately. It’s as if you feel like these parents were eating bonbons and saying “hope little Charlie survives this inferno I’ve left him in” and then go about eating bonbons.

    Your assumption is rather presumptious to me…as if you sit around and think about your children ALL the TIME and these people didn’t. I hardly believe that’s the case.

  16. Monica Sakala
    July 9, 2013 | 8:18 pm

    Then I guess the cat’s out of the bag that I have judgements on this issue but that’s the whole reason I bring it up– it’s an important topic and we all agree on the most important thing — which is it would be nice to have a summer where this didn’t happen.

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