It was Day 3 of a new routine for the Edwards family. Jodie, a professor and counselor at a private university in Cincinnati, had spent the summer of 2008 working two days a week and taking care of her two children: her then 3-year-old son and her 11-month-old daughter, Jenna. On the days Edwards worked, both children stayed with a babysitter near her office.
Now it was August and classes were beginning for Edwards, and preschool was starting for her son. Jenna would be with the babysitter Monday through Friday. "I could walk over and see Jenna, nurse her, and bring her back to my office when I wasn't teaching," Edwards says.
On Wednesday, August 20, she drove her minivan to her son's Montessori school and took both children inside. "He was really worried about being in a new building, so we went in and stayed with him for 20 minutes, playing and helping him feel comfortable," she recalls.
That was the last time the three of them ever played together. Edwards brought Jenna back to the van and strapped her into her rear-facing car seat. "I was talking and singing to her," she recalls. "Five minutes into the drive Jenna started to sing in this little voice she uses when she's sleepy. I had a child-safety mirror, and when I looked in it I could see that she was going to fall asleep." Edwards thought about how much she wanted Jenna to stay asleep and finish her morning nap once she got to the babysitter's. "In a very detailed way, I visualized getting there, walking around to the backseat door, unbuckling her straps, getting her out very gingerly, and covering her ears so the babysitter's door wouldn't wake her. I pictured myself saying to the babysitter, 'Jenna's sleeping. Can I lay her in the crib?'"
For the next 15 minutes, Edwards drove toward the babysitter's. But instead of driving past her workplace and traveling another half block to the sitter's house on the next street, she pulled into her office parking lot. "I parked my car," she recalls. "My bags were in the front seat. I walked around and I got them out, and I went in to work" -- leaving Jenna in the car on a 92°F day for the next seven hours.
Tragically, Jenna did not survive. She was one of 43 children who died unattended in a hot car that year. The same number of children also died that way in 2013, and since 1998, the number has ranged from 29 to 49 deaths each year. Roughly 20 percent were left in a car by a parent who, for instance, thought she'd run a "quick" errand and came out to find her child dead. Close to 30 percent entered a car without their parents' realizing it and couldn't get out. But 52 percent were left in the car accidentally. And more than half were under 2 years old.
A child is at greater risk than an adult in a hot car. That's because a small body heats up three to five times faster than an adult's would in the same circumstance. "The internal cooling system -- sweating -- isn't as effective in kids as it is in adults because an adult has more skin through which sweat can evaporate to cool the body," explains Kate Carr, CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide, a global organization devoted to preventing childhood injury.
When cooling doesn't take place quickly enough, a child's body temperature can rapidly rise to a dangerous level. If it reaches 104°F, major organs may begin to shut down. When it reaches 107°F, death from heatstroke is imminent. This can happen faster than most people think. Even on a mild, 70°F day, the inside of a car can become very hot within minutes, says Carr. "Deaths from heatstroke in cars have occurred 11 months of the year in nearly every state in the country."
Every Parent's Nightmare
For mothers and fathers who have unintentionally left their child in a car, the aftermath couldn't be much worse: First and foremost, their child died. Second, they caused it. And third, the tragedy was completely preventable.
When Jodie Edwards realized what had happened to Jenna, she collapsed next to her minivan. "I had to lie on the ground," she recalls. "I couldn't even sit up." Emergency workers and police had arrived, news helicopters were on their way, and her baby was dead.
But before Edwards collapsed, all she felt was confusion. She'd left her office at 4 P.M., eager to pick up Jenna -- whose new photo she'd pinned to her bulletin board that day -- from the sitter's and her son from preschool. "I put my car in reverse. As I was backing out, I looked in my rear-view mirror and I saw her." She stopped the car, ran around to the backseat while dialing 911, opened the door -- and knew that Jenna was dead.
"I couldn't figure out how she'd gotten there," she says, because she was so sure she'd dropped her off with the babysitter. She'd carried her phone everywhere that day, in case the sitter needed to reach her. "I thought, 'Who put Jenna in here?' and I even looked to see whether someone had put my boy in there too."
Frantic, she replayed the morning in her mind, and when she got to the part about asking the babysitter whether she could lay Jenna down so she wouldn't wake up, she realized she hadn't taken her. She began screaming, "No, no, no!"
In the chaos of the moment, before the police took Edwards away for questioning, there was one phone call she needed to make. "I had to tell my husband what had happened," she says. "Remembering that will break my heart forever."