A rather grim hypothetical.

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A few weeks ago, I walked into a conversation between two of my co-workers wherein one was asking the other the rather macabre question, “Can you imagine a situation in which you would forget your baby was in the car with you?” New mother and resident recipient of all our childless, curiosity-driven questions, coworker number 2 emphatically answered; no, she could not imagine such a thing, her mommy senses were too strong. Butting my way into the conversation, I agreed; no, surely, if one was sober, mother or not you would just SENSE another person in the vehicle with you. I love hypotheticals as a means of making small-talk interesting and I’m sure by now you see where this particular hypothetical leads…if you DID forget your baby was in the car with you and you left it and it was hot out…the baby dies. A scenario which, if you consume any sort of news media, is repeated again and again…and again. Especially this time of year. In response to the hypothetical, all three of us were insistent that this would never happen to us. But it does happen. A lot.

My co-worker presenting the question had just read Gene Weingarten’s 2009 article Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime? from The Washington Post Magazine. She explained that the article posited, it’s way easier than we would think. My interest totally piqued, I pulled up the article that night after work and was completely sucked in. Longform journalism at it’s finest, the story is presented with twists and turns, heartbreaking personal accounts and bone-chilling statistics. But for me, it also flipped the stereotype I had in my head about the person who may, in completely undressed up language, accidentally kill their own kid. When I’d heard stories about this phenomenon in the past, my mind would draw up some drug-addled, barely functioning parent who, maybe not totally maliciously, was more focused on scoring their next high than caring for their offspring. Boy, was I wrong.

 

Here’s a teaser from the article, if you’d like a taste:

 

“Death by hyperthermia” is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall…

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.

***

The article goes on to examine whether this atrocity is a court-ordered, punishable offense or whether the self-prescribed, guilt-ridden hell these parents must reside in for the there-after is punishment enough. After all, they have already lost their child. Weingarten cites statistics gathered by a childs’ safety advocacy group. 40% of these incidents are evaluated by the courts and deemed a horrific accident. 60% are aggressively pursued as a felony.

Wherever you fall in terms of how you think cases like these should be addressed, I recommend giving this article a read. It’s a riveting investigation into these parents’ fatal distraction. And your reaction to Weingarten’s words may very well surprise you.

 

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