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"It's one of the worst tragedies a family can experience," says Janette Fennell, founder and president of kidsandcars.org, a Kansas-based safety advocacy group. Fennell's organization tracks child deaths and injuries in and around cars. According to her group, more than 450 kids have died from hyperthermia in cars since the mid-1990s — when safety experts told parents to move car seats to the back, to avoid the dangers of passenger-side airbags.
A March 2009 article by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post Magazine, "Fatal Distraction," pondered whether parents who forget their children in cars should be charged with a crime at all. The story, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, detailed how the human brain is capable, especially when aggravated by stress, of simply forgetting that a child is in a car all day.
In Florida, prosecutions and penalties vary widely. In some cases, no charges are ever filed. In others, the caregiver ends up in prison. In the 50 fatal incidents in Florida since 1998 for which public information is available, government policies differed significantly from one jurisdiction to the next. Some counties, such as Miami-Dade, prosecuted every case, while other jurisdictions, like Sarasota County, have declined to file criminal charges in similar circumstances.
In total, charges were filed in 58 percent of the Florida cases, and of those, most defendants were convicted — about 85 percent. In most cases, the defendant was given probation, though prison sentences ranged from a few weeks to Antonio Balta's 20 years.
The tragedy strikes across ages, races, and socioeconomic status. But each story has its own tragic twist, a point when an ordinary, mundane day turns into an unimaginable nightmare.
One Coral Springs mother watched her two oldest children play soccer at a park for hours on a warm Saturday afternoon before remembering that her 9-month-old was still in the car. No charges were filed.
A Lake Worth woman's 4-year-old son died in the back of her Ford Expedition as she got her nails done on the day she was to be married. The boy had sneaked into the back seat and hid in an attempt to spend extra time with his mother and aunt. They didn't notice him when they parked the car outside a salon for three hours. The mother was so distraught that she had to be sedated at the hospital. Again, no charges were filed.
A Naples woman dropped her oldest child at school and thought she'd also dropped her 2-year-old daughter at daycare when she headed to work at a bank, where her Toyota Corolla remained parked in direct sunlight all day. After work, she drove all the way to the daycare to pick up the girl before noticing the body on the floor of the back seat — in the sweltering heat, the baby had escaped her car seat but couldn't get out of the car. The mother ended up pleading no contest to child neglect and received two years' probation.
After waking up and finding his girlfriend's 1-year-old son unresponsive in the car where he'd been left, a frightened 20-year-old in Fort Lauderdale put the dead baby in his crib and initially told police the child died from SIDS. An autopsy showed the baby's body temperature had reached about 108 degrees at the time of death. The man was sentenced to a year in jail and drug treatment.
The only sentence that even approaches Balta's was handed down in 2004, to a Lake Worth woman who left her 4-month-old in her own driveway overnight. She told police she passed out after drinking four or five beers and using marijuana, cocaine, and Xanax. She woke up at 2 p.m. to find her baby dead in the beat-up Pontiac parked outside. Two hours after the tiny girl was removed, her body temperature was still 106.3 degrees. The mother was sentenced to five years in prison.
Just four months after Antonio Balta accidentally killed his daughter, a dentist in Boca Raton brought his 3-year-old son with him to the office. He left the boy asleep in the car, thinking he'd be inside for only a minute. Three hours later, after a call from a relative and a sprint across the searing parking lot, he found the toddler unconscious, still strapped into the back seat of their Ford Explorer. The boy died an hour later. The dentist pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter to avoid the anguish of a trial. The judge withheld conviction, sentencing the father to ten years of probation and 500 hours of community service.
"One of the most tragic parts is that these situations could almost all be prevented with either more awareness or the use of technology that's already available for automakers," says Fennell of kidsandcars.org. Safety groups suggest putting a wallet or purse in the back seat of the car during every trip (even if the child isn't in the car), setting a cell-phone alarm as a reminder to check on the baby, or setting up emails that automatically ask, "Did you drop off the child at daycare?" High-tech gadgets — like censors that trigger an alarm if a child is left in the seat while the ignition is off — have been designed and tested by NASA engineers, but manufacturers have been reluctant to sell them for fear of liability issues.