Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

Every summer we hear about it, and every summer we think, "Could that happen to me?"  It happens about 20 times in the United States each year.  A parent forgets that their infant or toddler is in the backseat and leaves them in the car, resulting in the child's death.  Hubby and I have talked about this when we've seen it on the news, wavering between criticism of such a negligent parent and empathy with a parent who made the most tragic mistake of their life.  But, it has always been a problem we can mentally categorize as "not our problem."

Until this past week.  A teacher at one of the schools I work at forgot that her one year-old daughter was in the car with her.  She didn't realize that she'd left her precious daughter in the car until police came in the school building to arrest her.  A high school intern had parked next to her car and noticed the baby.  She called 911, broke out the window of the car with a 2X4 she had in her truck, and performed CPR on the lifeless baby.  The baby died.  The teacher was arrested.  And, staff and students wondered how something so terrible could happen.  The teacher was well-respected, kind, loved her child, and was usually quite dependable.   But, she did often work late, and was stressed from working in a system with increasingly high expectations.

As the psychologist assigned to the school and the lead person for the area's crisis response team, I was called to respond.  My team and I heard a variety of reactions, from shock to blame to deep sorrow.  One reaction, though, was fairly predictable.  Staff members with children of their own wondered, "Could this happen to me?  Could I forget my child in the back seat?"  While part of us is quick to place blame and want to hang these parents for being so neglectful, I think that many of us can secretly relate. A young child that is still required by law to be rear-facing is also at the age where they fall asleep easily in the car.  In the busy hustle and bustle of preparing for work, it seems plausible to most people that they could forget that their child is there. 

The best discussion of this topic was written by Gene Weingarten in 2010, "Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?".  The article won the Pulitzer Prize that year for showing an inside look at several cases and shining light on the troubling questions of guilt and empathy that these cases ultimately bring to mind.  You really must read the article . . . if you can.  I had to read it in pieces, emotionally processing some pieces before moving on.  There are some details that will tear your heart out, especially if you have infants or toddlers of your own.

One important point that Weingarten makes, is that this type of tragedy could happen to anyone.  He says,
"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."
Weingarten also convincingly explains the brain science behind the possibility of forgetting something so unforgettable. Our reptilian brain, the basal ganglia, which controls our voluntary but barely conscious actions, may be to blame.  When our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is responsible for planning and decision-making, and our hipppocampus, which plays an important role in memory, are preoccupied with other life events (getting ready for work, family and life stressors, etc), our basal ganglia can take over our more predictable day-to-day actions.  This type of basal ganglia autopilot mode is why you can sometimes drive from place to place and not actually remember doing it.  This basal ganglia function can be quite helpful, but in rare circumstances, it can lead to devastating instances of forgetfulness.

So, what's a concerned momsie to do?  First, don't spend much time imagining the horrific scenario of your child being left in the car seat.  Our minds can go crazy with those images.  Instead, think proactively.  There are some "forgotten-baby devices" such as ChildMinder Smart Pad System, the Deluxe Padded Safety Seat Alarm System, and SafeBABI, which can give you some peace of mind as they promise to remind you if you've forgotten your baby in their car seat.  These devices have fallen under scrutiny, however, as not being totally reliable. 

Your best protection is to keep in mind, these incidents usually happen when a parent is under abnormal amounts of stress and they get off their regular schedule.  If you know that you are stressed, or will be off your regular daycare drop-off schedule, set up some reminders in your phone, have your spouse call you or send you a text message, or make other reminders to check that you've dropped off the baby.  Having intentional conversations with your spouse about the need to avoid changes in schedules and how you will help each other avoid forgetting, are probably your best preventative actions. 

And, remember, God is in control.  Ask Him each day to watch over and protect your children.  And, then, trust Him to do just that!



  1. My God, that is so heartbreaking. I've always sympathized with the parents because now, as a mother, I understand how easy it is to have a million and one things on your mind and forget for one second. It just takes. One. Second. to change your life forever.

    That poor woman. My thoughts are truly with her at this time. She is living though every parents worst nightmare...

  2. Yes, Reese, it is unimaginable. I just keep thinking about how that poor teacher's life has completely changed. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I'm feeling so sad about the story. It's sad to know that there are things like this that are happening and they result to devastating consequences. I can't even imagine the feeling that the teacher had the moment she realized that the baby was left in the car and that something had happened to the baby. This is every parent's worst nightmare indeed. :(

  4. Every time I hear about one of these situations, it just tears at my heart. I cannot imagine what that mother is going through, and how traumatized the intern must be. I feel for responders, like yourself, too. One strategy that may help reduce risk is also to place your work bag in the back seat, right next to the baby's car seat.


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