- Hot Cars
I am telling my family’s story in an effort to prevent what I experienced as the most traumatic and horrific experience in my life from happening to other families. I also hope that my story helps prevent the average person from the normal judgement that goes along with most of these cases. I was one of those people prior to this happening to my family. I would watch the news and wonder, “How can you leave the most important thing in your life in a hot car? What kind of parent does that?” Until it happened to me, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the “Why” or “How” these things happen. From the many stories I have now read from other parents, the common denominator seems to be “It won’t happen to me” or a simple change in a normal routine. I believe both of these were factors in our case.
On September 8, 2017, my husband and I received some heart wrenching news that our 2-month-old daughter, Charleigh, was diagnosed with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (“ONH”) and could potentially be blind for the rest of her life. This was heart breaking. We had experienced fertility issues and had been trying to have her for over 2 years. We have two other kids – my step daughter is my husbands from a previous relationship and my son is from my previous relationship. We were halfway through building our house when I found out I was pregnant (we had already had a room built in hopes of having another child). I always said I wanted a “his, hers, and ours!” and Charleigh was “ours!” We were heartbroken by the diagnosis but we went home and tried to keep some faith. That same day, we decided to take our dog of 10 years to the vet (she had been sick and throwing up) and found out that she had cancer and may only have days to live. We were broken and defeated. Although the eye doctor said to wait and see how things progress, we wanted more information on Charleigh’s eyes so we decided to get other tests done and more opinions. For the next few weeks, it seemed as if we were at the doctor every day. She went through MRI’s, VEP test, visual acuity test, and more opinions from other eye doctors so we could try and figure this out. At this point, we didn’t think things could get much worse, however, we were wrong.
On a normal routine day, my husband and I wake up together and get ready for the day. I am usually responsible for getting our kids ready, taking them to school, taking Charleigh to daycare, and going to work. My husband has a 42 mile commute to work and my commute is only 24 miles – So I’ve grown to accept that it’s my responsibility to get the kids where they need to go. We are normal everyday working people – I work at a local hospital and my husband is a CPA. While we both work during the day to provide for our family, the majority of our time spent outside of work is all family and all about our kids. Our daughter plays softball while our son plays baseball and football. We’re typically away from home for 12+ hrs a day during the week. Then, our weekends consist of kids games, housework, church on Sundays, and football (my husband is a huge Cowboys fan)!
On the morning of September 19, 2017, my husband and I woke up and made the decision to take our dog to the vet and put her down. After leaving the vet we were heartbroken and could barely hold it together. Since I had missed several days of work in the past weeks due to Charleigh’s doctors’ appointments, I had to go to work. I left my house with Charleigh around 10:00am. I had only been back to work for a few short weeks since maternity leave so while dropping my older kids off has always been my routine, dropping Charleigh off at daycare afterwards but before work was still new to me. Also, Charleigh was sound asleep and in a rear facing car seat. My husband loaded her in the car (which is rare because he usually leaves before me in the morning) and he put her diaper bag in the back seat. My mind was crowded and occupied and my normal routine was broken. I ALWAYS dropped my other 2 kids off at school and then took Charleigh to daycare. But this morning was different. I didn’t have to drop my two older kids off at school. I dropped Charleigh off at daycare in my mind, however, I never physically dropped her off like I thought. Like many of these cases that I’ve read, my mind was distracted, my routine was broken, and my mind went on autopilot.
I arrived at work around 10:30 am on a day where the high was roughly 92 degrees. I went on with my normal workday like any other day. I even had several conversations with my coworkers about my daughter since I left work early the previous day to take her to another doctor and the following day she had another doctor visit to attend. Then, around 3:30pm a coworker came into my office to look up a speeding ticket she had received. Since I knew I had a speeding ticket a few months back that I had called on several times and it never made it in the system, I decided to look up my name too. Surprisingly, my ticket appeared. I went into panic mode because my husband was a stickler about taking care of things so I knew I needed to take care of this ticket now. I ran into my boss’s office and told her I was taking my lunch so that I could take care of this ticket. (On a normal day I would not leave until around 5:30) I ran to my car and opened the door. As soon as I got in the car I heard a small faint whine and whimpering and looked back and there she was, still strapped in her car seat. I screamed and ran to the other side of my car to get her out. She was still alive but barely breathing and her body was white. Her eyes were not moving around, she was limp, and she was drenched in sweat. I work at a hospital so with no hesitation, I grabbed her out of her seat and ran straight to the ER at my work. I ran through the doors screaming for the nurses to help me. At the time, I was thinking the worst. I felt weak and sick and as soon as the nurses grabbed her from my arms I fainted. When I regained consciousness, they were covering her in ice packs and giving her fluids and oxygen. Her initial temp was 108.7 and within minutes they had it down to 103 and then minutes later it was 100. Because the hospital is a local community hospital, they ordered an ambulance to transfer her to the county hospital that specializes in children. I remember telling the nurses that her eyes weren’t moving so something was wrong but they kept reassuring me that everything was fine and that her eyes were not supposed to shake. However, Charleigh was also diagnosed with nystagmus a few weeks prior which cause her eyes to constantly shake. I have never wanted her eyes to shake more in my life. By the time my husband arrived she was stable and her temp was down. I recall the scene being something like you would see in a movie – it was frantic. All my coworkers were there and were anxious and nervous for my family and for Charleigh. Everybody was in disbelief. Some were curious and worried while some of them there to pass judgement because no one could understand how this could actually happen.
In the meantime, my husband was there by my side while they were nursing Charleigh back to health. I recall him leaving the room at one point because somebody asked him to come outside. The police pulled him aside and told him in private that I was not allowed to leave when the ambulance arrived and that I would have to give a statement. I remember him coming back to the room with a look of disbelief on his face. I asked him “What’s going on” and “What was that about” and he explained to me that the police were outside and I couldn’t leave with him and Charleigh in the ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, I helped get Charleigh situated for transfer and hugged and kissed her. At that point, she seemed like she was recovering and she would be fine. It was a great relief considering what the outcome could’ve been.
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While my husband and Charleigh left to be transported, I went in a private room at the hospital to talk with the police and give my statement. I didn’t even care about talking to the police because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong and what happened was a complete accident. I also didn’t care about much at the moment but Charleigh’s health. While this part of the story shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Charleigh survived the most horrific and traumatic experience of my life, it is an important part of the story that I feel should be emphasized. I was questioned. From the beginning, the police gave the appearance that that they believed that I could’ve done this intentionally. I have no criminal record. I have never used drugs, never smoked, and don’t drink. I will do anything for my kids. I have never been investigated by CPS. During my statement (which was more like questioning), they made me believe that my husband was mad at me. They asked if we had marital problems, they asked about Charleigh’s previous health problems, etc. Did they really believe that I would harm my own child because she had health issues? They didn’t want to believe that this could just be an accident that was a result of a broken routine, added stress, an autopilot mind, etc. They made me out to be a criminal in which, in my mind, I was not. I was arrested and charged with a Child Endangerment w/intent to cause bodily harm, a second degree felony punishable by up to a 10 years in prison.
I was confused. I was worried. The last thing I knew my baby was being transported to the hospital and was planning on staying overnight. I was sitting in the back of a cop car in the parking lot of the hospital I worked at, watching as more and more police cars arrived and surrounded my car in the parking lot. My car was wrapped with crime scene tape and when we left the hospital, 10 police cars surrounded my car while pulling everything out. I was taken to the county jail and was fingerprinted, had my mugshot taken, and booked. This was at roughly 6pm. I stayed on the phone with my husband and mother as much as possible so I could get updates on Charleigh while I was waiting to get out. I waited until 5am the next morning to see a judge and have a bond set so my husband could get me out. I was released at 11am on September 20, 2017. Upon release, one of my bond conditions stated that I could not be around any minor children or at the residence of the victim. I can’t begin to describe my experience – it was my version of hell. While no judge or court could give me the sentence I was giving myself mentally, I couldn’t help but think that with the legal troubles that loomed ahead, my life was over. I couldn’t even be around my own kids or stay at my own house. After help from our attorney, the bond conditions were released and I was able to see my kids again. CPS put a safety plan in place and Charleigh was finally allowed to be released from the hospital and back into our care.
Since the incident happened at my place of employment, I was suspended without pay from work. The HR department made my return to work contingent upon the charges being either dropped or reduced to a misdemeanor. In December of 2017, my case was rejected by the DA and my charges were officially dropped. I was able to return to work that day. The time off of work definitely took a toll on our family financially. We endured 3 months of only my husband’s income while also having to pay for an attorney. We have done our best to slowly recover since then.
My kids are my ENTIRE world. Everything I do is for them. I was at all my kids’ practices and every game all while dealing with my daughter’s health issues. This was my wake-up call to slow down. I was trying to “do it all.”
We were fortunate that God was watching over my sweet girl in that car that day. The angels were sitting with her and fanning her sweet body until I could get there. Our family, the detectives, the nurses, and the CPS worker all have nicknamed Charleigh the “miracle baby.” My family, friends, and coworkers were and still are my back bone. Without them I don’t know what I would do.
Living with the guilt and pain of causing harm to your own child is irreversible. I live everyday with the picture rolling through my brain. 2 years later, I still struggle with night terrors and severe anxiety attacks. Every day is a complete struggle. I sometimes think it would be easier if I was not the one who found her because then the picture could not haunt me. Even though I get to see my sweet baby grow and flourish now, I still think about the what-if’s. Social media is the worst. There are so many parents throwing judgment to every parent this happens to without knowing who they are affecting. The torture may never go away but I hope that one day I can look at Charleigh and understand that she is meant for great things. She is meant to be something special in this world. I read stories where children died after being in the car for MUCH less time and on cooler days. I know that I should be happy that I still get to hold my baby tight every day but none of that takes the pain away. My daughter had a near DEATH incident and I was the cause. How does any mother forgive herself for that? Maybe reading this story will help a busy mom slow down and ask for help when things get overwhelming. Don’t be that mom that thinks she can “do it all,” because the one time you can’t, it could be deadly. This can happen to anyone at any time. No one is exempt from this horrific accident and I will forever be an advocate for parents everywhere.
Written by Charleigh’s MomDonate in honor of Charleigh