"What Kind of Parent Could Leave Her Child in a Car?"

A video made the rounds in our office recently. Maybe you've watched it, or saw someone post it on Facebook. Called "One Decision," it's a dramatization of a mom who forgets her young child is in the back seat of their car when she goes into a store on a bright, sunny day. He's left in the hot car too long, and though a bystander eventually smashes the car window, retrieves the little boy and calls 911, we have no idea, as the ambulance pulls away and the video ends, whether he lives or dies.

It's very difficult to watch. Your heart will be in your throat from the moment the mom leaves the car and her little boy looks on, seemingly a bit confused. When other bystanders peer in the window and walk away, you'll be thinking, Do something, please. And by the time the child, sweating profusely, starts to cry and then passes out, you'll feel absolutely frantic.

One point the filmmakers, Redcastle Productions, wanted to make with this powerful video is that if you see an unattended child in car, you need to get help immediately. And that's an important point. We may assume a parent will be right back and therefore don't do anything, but that can be a dangerous assumption.

I'm very glad the issue of kids left in cars is getting the attention it deserves. Every year, an average of 38 children die this way. So far in 2013, the number is up to 24. I know a family whose little girl didn't survive after her mom--a doctor--accidentally left her in their car while she worked all day from home (which was not her norm), fully thinking she had dropped her off at day care. It's impossible to overestimate the pain, grief, and guilt she will feel for the rest of her life. Earlier this summer, at the SafeKids Worldwide Child Injury Prevention Conference, I met Reggie McKinnon, a father whose daughter, Payton, died in 2010 after he left her in their car. It is now his mission to educate parents by speaking publicly about his experience, no matter how much it hurts and no matter what people say about him.

Over the years, we at Parents have heard countless stories like Reggie's. In the vast majority of cases, the parent is a responsible, caring person who couldn't conceive of ever forgetting her child for a second. On the day her child died, something about her routine was different--she was in charge of dropping her child at day care instead of her spouse, or maybe she'd just completed an unusually long shift at work and was exhausted, or maybe she was driving a different car. (And in some cases, all of those factors were at play.) For whatever reason, her routine was disrupted and it set in motion a chain of events that led to one that would've seemed impossible: She forgot their child.

These parents, who have already endured an unfathomable kind of loss, are often subjected to harsh--vitriolic, even--scrutiny from the public. The two most common refrains:

What kind of parent could forget her child?

I could never leave my child in a car.

But if there's one thing these families' stories prove, it's that anyone is capable. It's not a matter of how cautious we normally are. It has nothing to do with how much we love our children. Even the most competent parent is vulnerable when his routine changes or he's exhausted or he's distracted.

And that brings me to my problem with this video. The mom comes across as simply absentminded. She'd been wrapping up a cell phone conversation as she exited her car. She's shown casually strolling through the aisles of a store, stopping to chat with a friend. I get the filmmakers' message: You can be so lost in your own world that you shut out even the most fundamental parts. But I fear this portrayal of the mom merely perpetuates the unfortunate stereotype many people have of parents who leave their child in a car: that they're scatterbrains with messed-up priorities.

I hope someone makes a video that shatters that misconception. Maybe once we understand that as parents, we're all at risk, the number of children who die in hot cars will finally drop. Twenty-four children so far in 2013 is 24 too many, but we can hope that thanks to films like this, it can stop there.

SafeKids has more about this issue, including some very basic and effective prevention methods. Take a minute to read them.

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