There might not be anything as tragic or heartbreaking as when a parent leaves a child to die in the back of a hot car. This is hardly a rare occurrence, though, especially in Florida. The Sunshine State accounts for roughly one-sixth of all the fatal child hyperthermia cases in this country.
And what happens to the caretaker after the child dies can be surprising and often disturbing.
A New Times analysis of 50 fatal incidents in Florida since 1998 found that prosecutions and penalties vary widely across the state, depending in many cases on who left the child to die or in which county the death occurred.
Statistics about fatal incidents in Florida:
- Men were 25 percent more likely to be charged than women. And though conviction rates were the same for both mothers and fathers -- about 85 percent -- mothers were more likely to go to prison, and their sentences were, on average, a year and a half longer.
- Babysitters or caretakers were less likely to be charged than parents and less likely to go to prison if convicted.
- Some counties, such as Miami-Dade, prosecuted every case, while other jurisdictions, like Sarasota County, have declined to file criminal charges in similar circumstances.
- Charges were filed in 58 percent of the cases in Florida, even in many when the child was left unintentionally. In most cases, the defendant was sentenced to probation, though prison sentences ranged from a few weeks to Antonio Balta's 20 years.
- The longest sentence for a mother was five years, handed down to a Lake Worth woman who left her 4-month-old in her own driveway. She told police she passed out after drinking four or five beers and using marijuana, cocaine, and Xanax. She awoke at 2 p.m. to find her baby dead in the beat-up Pontiac parked outside. Two hours after she was removed, the baby's body temperature was still 106.3 degrees.
- Less than 10 percent of cases in Florida involved drugs or alcohol or a parent with previous criminal history of child abuse.
- In 13 of the 50 fatal incidents examined, the child crawled into the car when no one was watching. Only one of those cases resulted in prosecution: a father who fell asleep at home one afternoon and didn't realize his 22-month-old son had wandered out into the driveway, into the family's '99 Pontiac Sunfire. The man pleaded no contest to one count of aggravated manslaughter of a child and avoided jail time.
- In 60 percent of the cases, at least one parent forgot the child was in the car.
Many of the adults involved were upstanding pillars of their communities: soccer moms, military vets, PTA members, two bankers, a dentist, a retired school teacher.
"Most of these people are caring, doting parents who made a terrible, terrible mistake they have to live with for their rest of their lives," says Janette Fennell of kidsandcars.org, a Kansas-based safety advocacy group. "There's a temptation to demonize them because that makes the tragedy easier to understand, maybe, but I work with many of these people. They are good people, good parents who are in hell wherever they go, whatever they do, whether they go to prison or not."
Fennell's organization tracks child deaths and injuries in and around cars. Working with a team of grief-stricken parents across the country, she's compiled the nation's most thorough database on the subject. (The government doesn't track statistics on such cases.)
New Times' analysis was based largely on the database of fatal hyperthermia cases compiled by kidsandcars.org. The information was verified with police reports, court records, newspaper archives, and personal interviews whenever possible. Of the 50 cases examined, a few had some information missing. Some cases -- particularly those in which no charges were filed -- have no public documentation, and some are still under investigation. Overall, though, the group's numbers coincided almost exactly with information available through public records.
Each story has its own tragic twist, the point where what may have otherwise been a ordinary, mundane day turns into an unimaginable nightmare. And what happens to the responsible party next depends on policies that differ greatly from one jurisdiction to the next.
Though nearly every county has had a fatal incident in the past 12 years, Palm Beach had the most in the state with seven. Five of those were either prosecuted or are still under investigation. Hillsborough County had the second most with five -- two resulting in prosecution. Broward County had four; the only one of which wasn't prosecuted occurred in 1998. While in Miami-Dade charges were filed in all three cases, Pinellas, Polk, and Sarasota counties had six cases among them and not one prosecution.
In several cases, parents told police they'd left the child knowingly because they couldn't afford a babysitter or daycare. Thirty percent, however, involved children left under the care of someone other than a parent: a babysitter, a sibling, an aunt, or grandparent. In four cases, a child was left to die in a car by a daycare worker.
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