By Elia Petzierides
October 2013 in Perth, Western Australia, the father of an eleven-month-old child went to pick up his son from childcare. The staff advised him his child had not been dropped off that day, leaving the father confused as to the whereabouts of his child. Upon returning to his vehicle the father found his son buckled up in his child seat – deceased. A lapse of memory was blamed for the father forgetting to drop off his son at childcare in the morning. The cause of death hyperthermia after the temperature inside the cabin of the vehicle exceeded tolerable limits while the father unknowingly went about his daily activities while leaving the car locked up in the sun.
Yesterday (19 February 2015) in Kynton, Victoria, Australia, a 22-month-old male suffered what is believed to be the same fate. It has been reported that he was discovered deceased, buckled up in his child seat when a female relative went to pick him up from childcare in the afternoon.
Public reaction to these cases is puzzling. Seemingly level-headed people zealously berating a grief-stricken person they have never met for something they know little about. While it is acknowledged a minority of these rare cases are intentional, involve children with a history of neglect and/or parental substance abuse, the majority appear to be caused by a lapse of memory. An essay written by Gene Weingarten aptly titled “Fatal Distraction” – deservedly bestowed with a Pulitzer Prize – methodically, eloquently and heartbreakingly enlightens the reader on this topic. It quotes statistics of 15 to 25 children per year dying in the United States after being forgotten locked in a vehicle.
One commonly repeated question on this topic is “what sort of a person forgets their child in the car?” Weingarten’s answer unsettles those who want to apportion blame on what they believe to be a careless parent.
“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.”
So why have all of these people forgotten their child locked in the car with fatal consequences? Weingarten interviewed a professor of molecular physiology who lamented that our memory “is not flawless” and makes readers uneasy with his assertion “if you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”
With this in mind, the repetition of warnings to “never leave a child in a car, no exceptions no excuses” and calls for tougher sentencing in response to these tragedies of memory lapses are inappropriate and ignorant of the root cause.
Current strategies for preventing reoccurrence involve the use of memory triggers. These range from simple methods such as placing an item required – a bag or phone – on the floor of the back seat near the child to prompt opening of the back door and visualisation of the child. A more creative technique involves placing a large teddy bear in the child seat when it is unoccupied, then moving the teddy bear to the front passenger seat to serve as a visual trigger when the child is in the child seat. More strategies can be found here.
The fallibility of the human mind can at times result in grave consequences. The willingness of others to speedily blame grief-stricken parents no doubt causes further unnecessary grief and emotional turmoil. Before deciding to point the finger of blame, take the time to read the entirety of Weingarten’s prize-winning essay and see if he manages to enlighten you as he did me. For if we do not progress beyond blame, we will never embrace prevention.
See our other article on this topic.
The author Elia Petzierides is a Victorian based Advanced Life Support Paramedic and a Registered Nurse with a Graduate Diploma in Advanced Clinical Nursing.
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