Since the mid-1990s, the number of children who died of heat exhaustion while trapped inside vehicles has risen dramatically in US, totaling around 340 in the past 10 years, an investigation by premier news agency AP reveals.
The analysis also found that prosecutions and penalties vary widely, depending in many cases on where the death occurred and who left the child to die — parent or caregiver, mother or father:
_Mothers are treated much more harshly than fathers. While mothers and fathers are charged and convicted at about the same rates, moms are 26 percent more likely to do time. And their median sentence is two years longer than the terms received by dads.
_Day care workers and other paid baby sitters are more likely than parents to be charged and convicted. But they are jailed less frequently than parents, and for less than half the time.
_Charges are filed in half of all cases — even when a child was left unintentionally.
A relatively small number of cases — about 7 percent — involved drugs or alcohol. In a few instances, the responsible parties had a history of abusing or neglecting children. Still others were single parents unable to find or afford day care.
Many cases involved what might be called community pillars: dentists and nurses; ministers and college professors; a concert violinist; a member of a county social services board; a NASA engineer. And it is undisputed that none — or almost none — intended to harm these children.
"When you look at overall who this is happening to, it's some very, very, very good parents — might I say, doting parents," says Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, a nonprofit group that tracks child deaths and injuries in and around automobiles.
Tennessee District Attorney General William L. Gibbons gasps, "It frankly boggles my mind that a parent can forget that a child is in a vehicle for two hours." His office has prosecuted five cases involving nine parents and day-care workers since 1998.
Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ordered Gibbons to grant pretrial diversion to youth minister Stephen McKim. McKim was late for a church meeting and forgot his 7-month-old daughter Mia in the back seat — even though the day care center was at the church.
Under diversion, the charge would be dismissed after two years if McKim successfully fulfills certain court requirements. Gibbons thinks that's getting off too easy.
"We're not talking in most cases about sending anyone to prison," he says. "We are talking about placing someone on probation, maybe requiring them to go to some parenting classes or something like that, and giving them a felony record as a result of what happened. And I think that's reasonable."
Not surprisingly, the harshest treatment is reserved for those who intentionally left their children. According to the AP's analysis, those people are nearly twice as likely to serve time than people who simply forgot the child. And on average, they received sentences that were 5 1/2 years longer.
In 2004, Tara Maynor was sentenced to 12 1/2 to 60 years in prison on two counts of second-degree murder after leaving her two children in a car for four hours outside a suburban Detroit beauty parlor while she got a massage and hairdo. She told police she was "too stupid to know they would die."
Since 1998, charges were filed in 49 percent of cases. In those that have been decided, 81 percent resulted in convictions or guilty pleas, and half of those brought jail sentences — the median sentence being two years. Parents were only slightly less likely to be charged and convicted than others, but the median sentence was much higher — 54 months.
In cases involving paid caregivers, 84 percent were charged, with 96 percent of those convicted. But while they are jailed at about the same rate as parents, the median sentence in those cases was just 12 months.
Women were jailed more often and for longer periods than men. But when the AP compared mothers and fathers, the sentencing gap was even wider.
Mothers were jailed 59 percent of the time, compared to 47 percent for fathers. And the median sentence was three years for dads, but five for moms.
"I think we generally hold mothers to a higher standard in the criminal justice context than in just family life generally," says Jennifer M. Collins, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who has studied negligence involving parents and such hyperthermia cases. A large segment of society, she says, thinks "fathers are baby-sitting, and mothers are doing God's work."
Texas leads the nation with at least 41 deaths, followed by Florida with 37, California with 32, North Carolina and Arizona with 14 apiece, and Tennessee with 13. There were deaths recorded in 44 states — most in the Sun Belt, but many in places not known for hot weather.
The threat of the death of a child from hyperthermia in a hot car is much greater than people presume, it is pointed out.
First, a young child's body has yet to develop the ability to regulate its temperature to any significant extent. An infant or toddler's body heats up to five times faster than an adult's.
Children, often too young to escape, are particularly vulnerable because their immature respiratory and circulatory systems do not manage heat as efficiently as adults'. After a short time, the skin grows red and dry, the body becomes unable to produce sweat, and heat stroke kills the child.
Heatstroke sets in at 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), while 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 degrees Celsius) is fatal. On average, the temperature in an automobile under direct sunlight on a typical summer day will rise 20 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) in just ten minutes, and as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) in an hour.
Already this year, at least 16 children have died in hot vehicles from Hawaii to Virginia — including a 4-year-old New Orleans boy who died on Father's Day.
The question remains, it's easy to forget your keys or that cup of coffee on the roof. But a child? How is that possible?
The awful truth, experts say, is that the stressed-out brain can bury a thought — something as trite as a coffee cup or crucial as a baby — and go on autopilot. While researchers once thought the different parts of the brain worked in conjunction with each other, they now realize that different portions dominate at different times.
"The value of the item is not only not relevant in these competing memory systems," says memory expert David Diamond, an associate psychology professor at the University of South Florida who also works at a Veterans Affairs hospital. "But, in fact, we can be more complacent because we tell ourselves, 'There's no way I would forget my child.'"
Harvard University professor Daniel Shachter, a leading brain researcher, says memory is very "cue dependent."
"And in these cases, the cue is often missing," he says. "When we go on automatic, it's very possible for us to ignore or forget about seemingly important things."
Like a baby.