When an Arlington mother went grocery shopping in Pantego last week, she was surprised to come out and find first responders around her vehicle.
She had left her 3-year-old daughter in the car as she shopped, according to Pantego Chief of Public Safety Tom Griffith. Someone had seen the child in the car and called 911.
“I left the windows cracked,” she told police, Griffith said.
“She felt we were over-blowing the situation,” Griffith said. “Her attitude was not one of remorse.”
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Christa Walker received a citation for leaving a child in a vehicle, a Class C misdemeanor, according to the police report. The child was OK.
Five children in the United States have died this year after being left in a vehicle, according to KidsAndCars.org, including Kingston Jackson, 1, who was left in a car for more than five hours in Burleson on April 14.
Deanna Phillips, a Burleson police spokeswoman, said the boy’s death “appears to be a very tragic accident,” and there may not be any arrests in the case. While the medical examiner had not made a ruling on the manner of death as of Friday, the preliminary results show symptoms consistent with overheating, Phillips said.
The 2017 deaths are ahead of last year’s pace — there had been only two in the country by mid-April last year.
Officials haven’t been able to make headway in preventing these tragedies, particularly in Texas, which leads all states in child vehicular heatstroke deaths.
In the second and third weeks of April, the Fort Worth Fire Department responded to 26 reports of children being left in vehicles, up from 21 in the same time period last year, according to department spokesman Lt. Kyle Falkner. Fortunately, in these cases, the children didn’t have to be taken to the hospital.
“Never leave them, even for a minute,” Falkner said.
Most, not all, were forgotten
Young children, whose bodies can overheat 3-5 times faster than adults, can suffer serious brain injury or death after just minutes of sitting in a locked car, according to KidsAndCars.org.
When it’s 80 degrees outside, the inside of a vehicle can reach 123 degrees in one hour, according to noheatstroke.org. Heatstroke begins when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees. Especially with children, it can worsen quickly, damaging cells and shutting down organs.
“Cracking the windows has little to no effect on the temperature rising in vehicles,” said Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org.
More than 700 children died from being left in hot cars nationwide between 1990 and 2015, according to Kids and Cars. Texas leads all other states with 112 deaths.
Nearly 90 percent of the children who died of vehicular heatstroke between 1990 and 2015 were 3 years old or younger. Fifty-five percent of them were 1 or younger, according to Kids and Cars.
According to Kids and Cars, 55 percent of the fatal incidents happen because the child’s guardian forgot the child. That was the case with Michael Thedford, the Melissa father accused of leaving his 6-month-old daughter in the car while he took a nap in June of last year, according to WFAA-TV.
Twenty-eight percent of children who die of vehicular heatstroke got into the vehicle on their own without their guardians knowing, and 14 percent of the time the guardians left the children in the car intentionally, not expecting the fatal consequences.
The most common contributing factors include changes in routine, fatigue, stress and lack of sleep among new parents, according to officials. Babies often fall asleep in their car seats, and the rear-facing seats look the same whether the child is in it or not.
Stopping preventable tragedies
Officials have launched campaigns to remind parents to “Look Before You Lock,” and “Where’s Baby?”
But the problem persists. The average number of incidents has mostly held steady Griffith said, with an average of 37 child vehicular heatstroke deaths per year in the U.S., so officials “aren’t really making any headway.”
Griffith said the issue is important to him, but it isn’t being addressed aggressively enough.
“When it happens, it’s big news and everyone wrings their hands and feel sorry for the child and for the parent, but nobody asks, ‘What are we going to do to stop it?’ ” Griffith said.
He said he wants to see punishments increase for people who leave children in vehicles. In Texas, it’s a Class C citation, but if the child dies, the person responsible may face much stiffer charges, depending on circumstances of each case.
“If someone loses a child this way, oftentimes law enforcement doesn’t want to press charges because they’ve suffered enough,” Griffith said. “But then who is fighting for the dead child? Something needs to happen that sends a message that we’re serious about our children.”
A state representative from Dallas, Jason Villalba, began working on a bill last year that would protect people who break windows from legal action. Three members on the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence opposed it, so it has died, according to McKenna Skeeters, a spokeswoman for Villalba.
But the representative remains passionate about the issue and plans to file it again in the next legislative session.
Heatstroke isn’t the only danger of leaving children in vehicles. Fennell said others include injury or death from power windows, putting vehicles into gear, kidnappings or car thefts.
What should you do if you see a child left in a car?
“First, call 911,” Griffith said. “If you feel the child is in great distress, and first responders are still several minutes away, I wouldn’t hesitate to break the window.”
Pets are also at great risk when locked in vehicles, and these incidents are treated similarly by first responders.
Griffith said the owner of the vehicle could sue the person who broke it, but it’s a risk he’s willing to take.
“In each case, it’s always up to someone’s discretion,” Griffith said. “No one is required to do anything. From my perspective, in the case of children, I would take action. You could face a lawsuit, but I’d risk it.”