Anyone who can be held accountable should be, but this issue is far from being cut and dry
By LORRAINE SOMMERFELD
It may be tempting to let her sleep, but leaving a child in the car is a risky proposition
In May of last year, Shaun Pennell drove to work and parked his car. His day was normal until 5:15, when his life blew apart forever. He had forgotten to drop off Wyatt, his three-year-old son, at daycare on his way to work. The child died of hyperthermia.
Initially charged with failing to supply the necessaries of life and negligence causing death, Pennell pleaded guilty to the first and the second charge was dropped. Last week, on January 29th, a Milton judge gave him an absolute discharge.
The judge did the right thing.
Last July in British Columbia, police broke a window to rescue two youngsters aged three and five. This was at a shopping mall, with the car parked in the full sun.
“When our officer arrived on scene, he discovered the children trapped in the hot vehicle sweating profusely, crying, and with bright red faces,” Delta police spokesperson Cris Leykauf told a Global News reporter. The father showed up 10 minutes later, and police recommended charges.
I hope he goes to jail.
There is no easy way to approach this subject, no way that doesn’t inflame those so certain it could never happen to them, and no way to change minds of those who have closed them. In the U.S., more than 36 children will die this year in a hot car. While statistics are not available for Canada, it will probably be three or four, as our stats tend to be a tenth of theirs.
While the southern States provide the most deadly settings for hot car deaths, soaring temperatures in many Canadian months means we must remain just as vigilant. One American government study found “infants and children in states that experience mild winter temperatures face the threat of vehicular hyperthermia disability and death across the calendar year.” That death can happen in as little as two hours.
How does it happen? How can I be so convinced in my judgement of the two cases noted above? Because there are three fundamental ways that children become trapped in cars, and only one of them has anything to do with the actions of the child. There are cases where a child has gone to play in an unlocked vehicle, and as the temperature rises and heat stroke sets in, they can end up dying from hyperthermia. Children heat up internally two to three times faster than an adult; their thermostats are less effective. The temperature inside a closed vehicle goes up incredibly fast: We did an experiment that saw the temperature double from 26 to 52 degrees Celsius in one hour.
The other two scenarios are very different from that, and from each other. Some would argue they are not, but they are. If you intentionally leave your child in a car to go to a casino, get your hair done, or go shopping, you should be charged with all the things you can be charged with. You don’t leave any living creature in a vehicle unattended unless they are safely able to get themselves out, and be safe in the vehicle’s surroundings. An 11-year-old playing on his phone while you run into get milk? Sure. Six-year-old? No. Baby? Never.
The injury or death of any child is searing, and anyone who can be held accountable should be. But the issue of children left behind in cars is not as cut and dried as, say, if a child has been abandoned at home. As about half of the people who lose a child to hyperthermia each year come to know, there is no greater torture than living with unwittingly causing your child’s death. To stop it, agencies and studies and car manufacturers and aftermarket creators all have to first discover how it can happen. If half of the deaths occur not because a parent or caregiver intentionally left the child in the car, then what happens?
It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, usually traced to the time that children’s car seats, for safety reasons, were required to be facing rearward and to be in the backseat. Studies prove the longer they can face rearward, the better. We all do what’s safest for our children, but it’s also easier to forget they’re there, especially if they fall asleep.
“How can you forget your own baby?” you say. “I’d never do that.” Except it could happen to you, because it could happen to anyone. Read this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by Gene Weingarten. If you can get through it without sobbing, there’s probably something broken inside you. Read who it happens to: Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, psychiatrists, scientists. It can happen to anyone, because it’s about the way our brains are wired, not whether we’re good parents.
Most of us have our routines: Get up at the same time, shower, get the kids ready, have breakfast, drop the kids off at school or daycare, get to work, park and head in for our eight hours. It’s in the aberration from that rote schedule that things can go haywire; make a different stop before the daycare drop, or you take the kids today instead of me. This is the unintended circumstance that can fatally hollow out a family.
Weingarten’s piece goes into exquisite detail about the science behind this — and it is science, not criminality. It’s not about self-absorbed people playing with their phones. It’s not about people who don’t love their children. It’s about the crushing realization that you will pay for the rest of your life in a way far harsher than any jail cell.
That Milton judge was right. The Pennells will never know peace, but I hope they know there is understanding.