Most of us think we're incapable of making such a horrible mistake, but it’s frighteningly easy to leave your child in the car. Learn the facts about tragic hot car deaths, and hear from two parents who experienced the situation first-hand.

By Andrea Barbalich
Gayvoronskaya_Yana/Shutterstock

Sure, you might occasionally forgot to pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery store. But forgetting a child in a vehicle is a whole different story—or is it? 

Each year, about 38 children die from being left unattended in a hot car, according to KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit focused on keeping children safe in and around vehicles. That’s about one child every nine days. All in all, more than 900 children have lost their lives this way since 1990. 

When analyzing data from 1990 to 2018, KidsandCars.org reports that roughly 13 percent of children were purposefully 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. About 27 percent entered a car without their parents' realizing it and couldn't get out. But 56 percent were left in the car accidentally. A whopping 88% of victims were children under three years old.

Here's everything you need to know about how this horrible mistake can happen—plus two real-life stories from parents who've experienced the tragedy.

The Dangers of Hot Cars for Babies and Children

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 circumstances. "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."

How Parents Accidentally Leave Kids in the Car

Whenever an unintentional hot car death hits the media, the public response is the same: How could a parent leave her child in a hot car? 

In most instances, the child had fallen asleep, so there was no sound to remind the parent to take him out. And if a baby was in a rear-facing car seat in the backseat, there was also no visual cue: The baby's head might not have been visible over the top of the seat.

This is a relatively new problem. Prior to the early 1990s, children were routinely placed in the front seat, where it was obvious that they were in the car. In fact, from 1990 to 1992 there were only 11 known deaths of children from heatstroke after being left in a car. After that, car seats were moved to the back. This is when airbags became common and kids riding in the front seat were being killed by them—63 kids in 1995 alone. 

But backseat riding isn't the only factor in heatstroke deaths, and safety experts stress that the backseat remains the safest place for children. Another major contributor—one that's more difficult to comprehend—relates to the brain. "These are not negligent parents who have forgotten their kids," says David Diamond, Ph.D., a neuroscientist in the psychology department at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, who has reviewed the details of many hot-car deaths and has spent time with dozens of parents who unintentionally left their child in the car.

Understanding what they did, he says, requires grasping how two very different parts of the brain work. First are the basal ganglia—the "background system" that controls our habits. "It allows us to do things without thinking about them," Dr. Diamond says. When you're training in sports, for example, you repeat an action over and over to fine-tune your skills. Once it's time to compete, the action is automatic. "Your basal ganglia take over and you don't have to think about how to bounce or shoot the ball."

Then there are the parts of the brain that control new information: the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. The basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex essentially compete with each other, Dr. Diamond says. When you change up your routine and do something different, then the new details have to be processed by the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to override the basal ganglia's strong desire to perform actions out of habit.

The basal ganglia play a big part in driving. "Once you've driven from Point A to Point B enough times, you can do it without thinking," Dr. Diamond says. "You might not even remember the trip." If new information enters the picture (say, your partner calls to ask you to stop at the store and buy milk), your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus have to kick into gear to incorporate it. "But it's common to drive right past the store and come home. When your partner says, 'Where's the milk?' you feel flustered because you remember the conversation, but for some reason you came home instead." Why? Because you were on autopilot. "The basal ganglia actually suppress the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus from bringing that memory to your consciousness," explains Dr. Diamond.

Stress worsens this phenomenon, he adds. "It affects how our prefrontal cortex functions and makes it more likely we'll do something out of habit." And those factors, ultimately, are what allow otherwise responsible parents to leave their child in a car. In every hot-car death Dr. Diamond has studied, something was different about the routine that day. In some cases, Mom made two stops instead of her usual one. In other cases, Dad drove the baby instead of Mom or there was some other extra stress. And the basal ganglia won control.

Coping with a Hot Car Death

For mothers and fathers who have unintentionally left their child in a car, the aftermath is almost incomprehensible: First and foremost, their child died. Second, they caused it. And third, the tragedy was completely preventable. 

To make matters worse, there are also serious legal repercussions on occasion. According to a 2005 study from the Associated Press (AP), for example, charges were filed in about half of hot-car deaths. About 81 percent of those cases resulted in a conviction.

There is also, unfailingly, judgment and blame from the media, friends, neighbors, and perfect strangers. When Parents published a short article on this topic online in August 2013, many mothers posted outraged comments, such as these: "Irresponsible people trying to make excuses!" "People who do forget [their kids] should get their priorities straight." "Ummm, here is the deal. DON'T FORGET YOUR KID IN THE FREAKING CAR! There is no good excuse for being a bad parent!" And even this: "I am suspicious that these parents might have committed this crime as an easy way to lose unwanted children."

Beneath this harsh judgment is a desire for self-protection, explains Janet Brown Lobel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City and Pleasantville, New York. "The idea of forgetting a child in a car is such a horrifying prospect for parents that the only way they can deal with it is to make themselves feel as different as possible from the parent who did this," she says. "That parent becomes a neglectful parent with whom you have nothing in common. Therefore, you don't have to think about this tragedy because it could never happen to you."

Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, agrees: "People try to demonize these parents. The logic goes: 'These people are monsters. I'm not a monster, so it won't happen to me,' and that is the biggest mistake anyone can make."

Bill Milne

2 Real Stories of Children Left in Cars

These first-hand stories of children dying in hot cars prove that the situation can happen to anyone.

Taking a Wrong Turn

Brett Cavaliero, a 45-year-old father from Austin, Texas, lived this horror firsthand. On May 25, 2011, ten days after his daughter Sophia's first birthday, he and his wife, Kristie, dressed her in a bright, flowery dress that had been a gift from one of her child-care teachers. He strapped her into her car seat in the backseat of his truck and started driving. He was running late, he had work on his mind, and Sophia was sleeping. "I drove down this giant hill, and at the bottom of the hill I would ordinarily make a left-hand turn, drop her off, and circle back to go to work," he says. But that day he didn't. "When I came to that traffic light, I made a right-hand turn and kept driving to work. Sophia was sleeping in the back. My mind went on autopilot and I drove to work."

When he arrived, some of his colleagues were talking in the parking lot. He joined in and walked with them into the building, leaving Sophia in the truck. No one saw her through the tinted windows designed to keep cars cooler in the Texas sun.

Three hours later, Kristie came to her husband's office to pick him up for a quick lunch. "We were driving down the road in my wife's car, and we were talking about how beautiful Sophia looked that day in her flowery dress," he recalls. "Suddenly shock came over me and I said, 'I don't remember what her teacher said about her wearing the dress she got her.'" And then it hit him: He couldn't recall dropping her off. "I said, 'Just drive back to my office as fast as you can.' I could barely get the words out, but she understood and she called the child-care center to find out if Sophia was there. They said no, she never came in." Kristie called 911 while Brett frantically called a coworker to ask her to see whether Sophia was in his truck.

An hour and 19 minutes later —after the Cavalieros had arrived on the scene to find Brett's colleagues performing CPR and after an ambulance had taken the baby to the hospital—Sophia was pronounced dead.

To this day, Brett isn't certain what made him turn right instead of left at that traffic light. He's not sure whether he would have remembered his daughter if his coworkers hadn't been in the parking lot. He does know one thing: "I made a terrible mistake," he says. "I remember screaming on the ground begging God to take my life, not hers. I would've done anything in the whole world to save her."

When Sophia Cavaliero died, her father was questioned by police. Charges were never filed against him, but that didn't provide much solace. "I thought, 'It doesn't matter where you put me or what you do to me. I'll live with this horror every single minute of every day and there's nothing you can do to me that will be worse than this,'" says Cavaliero.

He never thought he would learn to manage his grief. But he's getting there, with the help of his wife, who never blamed him, and supportive family and friends. He and Kristie are now the parents of 20-month-old twin girls.

A New Routine

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.

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."

Jodie Edwards wasn't charged, but that didn't ease her grief in the least. "I have a sadness that will always be there. I just miss Jenna," she says. When she was waiting to be interviewed by the police, there was a part of her that wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. "I wanted to die," she says, "but I couldn't." She had a 3-year-old son to take care of. "I refused to let his life be ruined by this, so I made a commitment right then to do whatever I could to be a healthy parent for him." Her son is now 8 and has another sister and brother, ages 4 and 2 1/2 . "They're all beautiful and happy. And they know about Jenna," Edwards says.

"We have pictures of her all over the house," she says. "We talk about her all the time and make sure she's a part of every celebration in some way." Every year on Jenna's birthday, they do something they think she would have liked at the age she would've been. Two years ago they visited a butterfly garden; last year it was the zoo.

But Edwards believes that the greatest tribute she can make to her firstborn daughter is to do everything she can to raise awareness of how she died—and to help other parents understand that they could make the same mistake she did, even if they think it's impossible. "I thought love would make me immune to such a tragedy," she says. "But it didn't."

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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