BOISSER CITY, LOUISIANA — 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. Hot, record breaking temperatures have been registered across the country and as painful as the subject may be, reminders must be issued.
As I write this, already this year 13 children have died because they were trapped in hot cars. Equally inexplicably, 3 police dogs lost their lives the same way. Last year’s total was 25 kids 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 20 states have laws on the books that make it a crime to leave a child unattended in a vehicle there are other laws prosecutors use 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 children overheat up to five times faster than adults.
In January this year, 13-month old Shadoe Braxton Pate of Walker County, Georgia died of heatstroke on a cold day after his grandmother left him sleeping 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. Grandma has been charged with second degree murder and cruelty to children.
This spring, in Tennessee, Texas and Georgia law enforcement officers working K-9 duty each left their canine companion in a hot car and the dogs died. Two of the 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 but he may still face charges.
Sometimes a child inadvertently causes their own death as was the case in Houston this month when a 3-year-old boy crawled into the back seat of the family’s unlocked car to retrieve a toy. The child protective locks were engaged and he was unable to open the back door. Forty-five minutes later he was found by his frantic mother, dead. Police filed no charges in that case.
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 a headline grabbing case, prosecutors say the 22-month old’s father, Justin Ross Harris, deliberately left his son in the scorching July heat and that activity on his computer would prove he wanted a “child free life.” That activity included researching hot car deaths, how to survive in prison and sexting with at least six different women, some of them minors, as his son struggled in his car seat that awful day. When Harris goes on trial later this summer he’s expected to plead not guilty and continue to maintain the boy’s death was an accident.
Chris Wilkinson, a trauma flight medic, is a former friend of Harris. She is sickened by the frequency of hot car deaths of children, especially Cooper’s given the circumstances surrounding his father’s behavior.
Chris has now launched an internet based #2Hot2Leave campaign 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. Hyperthermia in children is often deadly.
Wilkinson is also pushing Baby Cooper’s Law which calls for tough, mandatory penalties for those leaving children and animals to die, protects those who break in to a car during a rescue from arrest or civil suit and mandatory 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 clip and hand to parents, grandparents and caregivers. Put your purse, briefcase, cell phone or even one of your shoes in the back with baby as an extra reminder. Make a pact with the sitter to call you if your child is late by 20 minutes. Teach children the car is not a place to play, always lock it and keep the keys out of reach. Finally, if you see a child alone in a car call 911 immediately. Seriously, every minute counts.