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Ariel Hart for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 1 month ago

The science of forgetting a child in a hot car

It could happen to anyone.

What exactly caused Justin Ross Harris to leave his child, 22-month-old Cooper, inside his SUV may not be known for some time. The baby died inside the hot car on Wednesday, and Harris, a Marietta resident, has been charged with murder.

But given the right circumstances, any parent, no matter how conscientious, can overlook his or her child in the car to disastrous results, some scientists and child advocates said. It is, in fact, a burgeoning wave of tragedy, causing 26 deaths in the United States last year. The key, they said, is to accept that fact and take precautions.

A ferocious debate rages on Facebook and Twitter about Harris' guilt. As of Thursday afternoon the story led the website of the avenging television star Nancy Grace.

"He should fry for this," one person wrote.

"Wow apparently you're all saints," wrote another Facebook commenter in Lowell, Mich. "Never had a busy morning kid falls asleep in the back seat you forget it happens?"

"No! NEVER," replied a woman from Hilton Head Island.

People who deny it could ever happen to them are deluded, said neuroscientist David Diamond.

The University of South Florida professor has made a specialty of examining the horror of forgetting children in cars. This is a very different thing from parents who, lacking child care, try to make do by leaving their child inside a vehicle, Diamond said. Those parents know what they're doing when they lock the car door behind them.

The others, conscientious people with no correlation to bad parenting, have truly forgotten, he said.

"I'm contacted almost on a weekly basis by parents who forget their children," Diamond said. "This is an epidemic."

What happens:

The child is out of view in a car seat, often directly behind a lone driver rather than on the passenger side. There's probably no visual cue in front of the driver, such as a diaper bag on the passenger seat.

The child is silent, perhaps sleeping.

Often on the day of the tragedy, a routine is broken -- like dad taking the child to daycare instead of mom. But the autopilot part of the brain takes over, and dad heads straight to work, as he normally does.

In general, the brain's separated functions are useful, Diamond said. You can strategize about a problem with the thinking part of your brain, all while you steer, speed, brake and turn the car on your brain's autopilot.

"I think everybody can relate. You get to work, you say, 'Oh my gosh, I have no idea how I got here,'" said Amber Rollins, director of KidsandCars.org, a safety organization.

But the brain's system can fail when it comes to remembering kids on a commute.

The problem of child hyperthermia deaths in cars got bad in the 1990s, after car seats were shifted to the back seats following child deaths from protective airbags. Car seats for babies also no longer face forward, so the child isn't visible. Plus, the advent of cellphones has brought more stressful distractions into the car.

Jan Null, a meteorologist at San Francisco State University, broke down hundreds of cases of children dying of heat stroke in cars. The majority were simply parents forgetting. Some came from children accessing the cars themselves. Less than 20 percent came from parents knowingly leaving their kids in a car.

He won't say whether such parents should be prosecuted. "Nope, not going to go there," Null said. "There are so many personal values involved, between the parents, the prosecuting attorneys, the mores of a community."

Frank Rotondo, director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, emphasized that all the facts in the Harris case are not known yet. But in general, he said, police follow the law. He believes prosecutions can sometimes deter others' negligence.

Kristie Reeves-Cavaliero of Austin, Texas, probably would have agreed, before her husband accidentally killed their baby daughter, Sophia, called Ray-Ray, on May 25, 2011.

Now, she said, she knows better.

Their routine that day was disrupted when they overslept. She thinks it was the first night Sophia had ever slept through. She just remembers the clock showed 9:43 a.m., "and chaos ensued."

Her husband took off with Ray-Ray strapped in the child seat. But as he used to do before her birth, he drove right to work. He has blocked out most of the day past the moment he realized what he'd done, and of that evening when he tried to take his own life, she said.

"When we went through it personally, I immediately saw times when the opportunity would have been right for me to have committed that same kind of error," she said Thursday.

"I just didn't have it in my heart, or in myself, to blame him," she said. "He's the only person on this earth who knows the depth of my pain and my loss." ___

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