What could be worse than knowing that your child died because of your negligent inattention? How should such a death be certified? What should be the punishment?
A Washington Post writer won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for reporting about parents who forgot their babies and left them to die, strapped in car seats, in closed cars that become ovens in the sun.
One little girl pulled out all her hair before she died.
All scenarios are similar: A loving parent “one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just ... forgets a child is in the car.” Nobody means to.
It happens as many as 25 times a year in the United States, to people of all ages, ethnicities and faiths. To mothers and fathers, natural and adoptive. To rich and poor, scientists and soldiers, police officers and professors, clergymen and clerks, social workers and students. Even to a rocket scientist.
Manner-of-death certifications are inconsistent, as are decisions to prosecute. Felony charges (murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide) are brought in 60 percent of cases while the other 40 percent are considered accidents.
A professor of education who is a language expert says there's no word for what this is. He says accident implies the event couldn't have been prevented; incident makes it sound trivial.
The professor left his 10-month-old son to die in the car in 2003.
How can such things happen?
People (sometimes juries) react with outrage. Maybe somebody could forget about a child for minutes (time enough for a toddler to drown in a pool or wander into the street), but for hours?
David Diamond, a molecular physiologist who does research about the effects of emotion and stress on memory, says, “If you're capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”
Everyone has arrived at a destination with no memory of driving the route. While our distracted minds operate on autopilot, our memory circuits are overwritten by whatever we're fixating on.
As far as these parents know, their children are wherever they usually are – with the other parent, with grandparents or in day care – not in the car. That memory disappears completely, as it did for one busy executive who heard his car's motion sensor alarm go off three times. Irritated, he checked the parking lot from a window, saw no one near his car, de-activated the alarm and returned to work.
Two babies have died like this under my jurisdiction – one in a bar parking lot while his father whiled away the afternoon; the other at a discount movie theater where multiple adult members of an extended family chaperoned a large number of kids. Different ages, different interests, different shows. Everybody thought somebody else had the baby.
I certified the first death a homicide. The second went out as an accident. Looking back, I don't know in either case whether I was right or wrong.
email@example.com. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.