Baby Gavin Gholston and toddler Ryatt Hensley both faced untimely deaths after overheating in vehicles in Lafayette Parish. Gavin, 11 months, died on a June day in 2012 in a hot vehicle parked at a workplace after his father forgot to drop him off at daycare that morning. Ryatt, 2, was found dead over the weekend in a vehicle parked outside of a residential area. In the first case, Robert "Matt" Gholston faced no criminal charges. Investigators determined the death was a horrible tragedy, not a crime. The man had suffered the loss of his son. It was punishment enough. In the more recent case, Natalie Broussard, Ryatt's mother, was arrested and charged with negligent homicide. Both cases are under the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office jurisdiction. The Sheriff's Office has released little information about either case. "The circumstances were different," said Captain John Mowell, spokesperson for LPSO. "We determined there was no criminal intent with the first one. This one, we believe there was at least negligence." The Sheriff's Office could point to no other cases in at least 10 years within its jurisdiction where an infant or toddler had died from heat stroke in a vehicle. Even if more information were publicly available, it's difficult to say why one parent faces criminal charges while another does not, according to Amber Rollins, director of KidsandCars.org, a nonprofit that has tracks and analyzes pediatric deaths caused by heatstroke in cars. "You could have two different cases with nearly identical circumstances, and in one case the parent is charged with extremely harsh charges and in the other they're not charged at all," Rollins said. "And there really just doesn't seem to be any consistency across the board." Her organization has identified about 500 deaths across the country involving parents and caregivers who said they were not aware they had left their babies in hot cars. No criminal charges were filed in about 41% of those cases. In about 32% of the cases, a parent or caregiver was charged and convicted of a crime. In about 11% of cases, someone was charged with a crime but was not convicted in court. Another 16% of cases were either still open or had an unknown status.
Charges also varied widely, ranging from manslaughter and other felonies to misdemeanors such as child endangerment. "If any case is truly a case where a parent unknowingly left a child, then criminal charges should absolutely not be filed," Rollins said. "The whole point of criminalizing something is to prevent it from happening again in the first place. We think that actually goes in the opposite direction of what you want to do. If someone sees this as a criminal issue, they think it doesn't apply to me. If parents are really honest with themselves, every parent has lost awareness that their child is in the backseat when they're sleep deprived. The difference, in most cases, is that something triggered them to remember." Although these cases are not terribly common, child-safety activists have been trying to raise awareness of how easy it is for a parent or caregiver to forget a child in a vehicle. The part of the brain responsible for performing habitual tasks such as driving to and from work suppresses the part of the brain responsible for processing the here and now and changes to routine, such as dropping a child off at daycare, according to David Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida who researches the psychology behind these cases. The subconscious memory is much more likely to take over when someone is stress, fatigued or sleep-deprived, all of which are especially common for parents of young children, Diamond said. "Parents lose awareness that their children are in their cars," Diamond said in a prepared statement. "Tragically, these parents report that they had pictures of their child on their desks, they talked about their child, and even left work on time to pick up their child from daycare." On a hot summer day, a vehicle's temperature can reach 125 degrees within minutes, even with the windows cracked. Children can also die of heatstroke when it's just 60 degrees outside if left in a vehicle for an extended period of time, according to KidsandCars.org. Rollins and others have pushed for laws that require car companies to include safety features alerting a driver if a child or pet is left unattended in a vehicle. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill earlier this year that would require such features. In the meantime, some parents and caregivers have relied on tools such as the eClip, a low-cost device that attaches to a car seat or diaper bag and sends alerts through a smartphone when a user walks more than 25 feet away from the vehicle. "It's forgotten-baby syndrome. Just like you can forget how you got to work because you're absorbed in other things, you can forget that you have a baby in the car," said Michael Braunold, who developed eClip and other childcare safety products as CEO of Elepho. "That's why in the majority of cases, there's no prosecution. It's very hard to prove negligence."