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Imagine forgetting a child in a hot car …

On a summer day in Portales when temperatures hovered around 91 degrees, imagine forgetting her strapped to her car seat, trapped inside an SUV-turned-oven until it’s too late to remember, too late to save her. That’s what happened to Maliyah Faith Jones, a 22-month-old girl who died July 25 when authorities say a child-care worker in Portales forgot to remove her and a 1-year-old girl from a black GMC Acadia for more than an hour after returning from an outing at a park. This is what Maliyah’s mother wants you to remember – that no matter how sure you might be that your child is out of the car, don’t be. Look before you lock. “I just want people to double check,” said Erika Tafoya, who now lives in Albuquerque. “I know people can get thrown off. People have busy days. It’s just something, it’s, I don’t know, how this could happen? How anybody can forget a child?” Tafoya will never forget. Maliyah was her only child, a beautiful baby girl born Sept. 15, 2015. Her name means “beloved,” but Tafoya said all she knows is that it sounded pretty.

Erika Tafoya says she can’t fathom how anybody could leave a child in a hot car, but on July 25 police say a Portales day care worker left Tafoya’s 22-month-old daughter Maliyah Jones and another child in an SUV for more than an hour. Maliyah died. (Courtesy of Erika Tafoya)

Tafoya, who is from Tucumcari, attended school to become a dental assistant, graduating when she was already pregnant with Maliyah. She enrolled in the New Mexico Christian Children’s Home’s single parent program to provide Maliyah with a stable home environment and a faith-based support system. Maliyah had just turned 1 when mother and daughter moved to Portales, where the program is based. “It was just me and my daughter,” Tafoya, 23, said. “I have an aunt and my cousin there, but it mostly was just me and her.” Her cousin knew Sandi Taylor, who ran Taylor Tots childcare center from her home along with her mother, Mary Taylor. That, Tafoya said, gave her some confidence that the Taylors would take good care of her child while she was at work. Until that day in July, they apparently had.

An assortment of puppies and flowers adorn the grave in Tucumcari where Maliyah Jones, 22 months, is buried. (Courtesy of Erika Tafoya).

That day, the Taylors transported 12 kids to a park for lunch and back to the child-care center. Sandi Taylor had taken six of the children, including Maliyah and the 1-year-old, in the black Acadia. According to an affidavit filed by Portales police, Taylor brought four of the children inside the center but “forgot” two of them. Taylor could not explain why she forgot the children, why she forgot to do a head count, why she hadn’t noticed two were missing even as she put the other 10 children down for a nap. Only after she returned to the Acadia to run an errand did she remember. The 1-year-old suffered catastrophic brain damage. Maliyah did not survive. The temperature in the Acadia was estimated to have reached 135 degrees. Heat stroke can occur at a body temperature of 104 degrees; death can occur at 107 degrees. The Taylors are each charged with child abuse resulting in death and child abuse resulting in great bodily harm. Each count carries a mandatory sentence of 18 years in prison. Trial for both women has been postponed from March until September. The license for Taylor Tots has been revoked. “We’re mourning, too,” a relative of the Taylors told the Eastern New Mexico News. “It’s just a horrible accident and I don’t know where we go from here.” Tafoya does. After Maliyah’s death, she moved away from Portales, unable to bear remaining in the apartment they shared. She handed out wristbands with the words “Look Before You Lock,” created a Facebook page called Justice for Maliyah, scattered stones painted and decorated and bearing the hashtag #justiceformaliyah that directs those who find the stones to the Facebook page. She tells people about the dangers of leaving a child in a car, even for a moment – how an average of 37 children die each year in hot cars, according to the safety organization Kids and Cars. How in 2017, 42 children across the country died, including one in New Mexico – Maliyah. How the temperature in a car can climb 20 degrees in 10 minutes, even when the car is in shade, windows down, outside temperatures as low as 57 degrees, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. She tells people about Maliyah, the little girl with the big blue eyes who learned to walk and talk earlier than most children. “She picked up everything so fast,” Tafoya said. “My grandma tells me Maliyah did everything so quick because she knew she wasn’t going to be here long.” She hopes you can’t imagine forgetting her now.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.
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