Op-Ed

Another long hot summer for kids in cars

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Every summer we try not to think about it. We hope that we won’t hear about it. But inevitably we do, because someone – a forgetful parent, a flustered baby sitter – leaves a child in a hot, locked vehicle.

And when that child dies as a result, every summer we shake our heads at the senselessness of it all. Our hearts ache not only because a child dies but because we know it was so easily preventable.

Children, mostly toddlers, dying from heatstroke after being left alone in hot cars is nothing new. According to the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences, 629 children in the United States have died that way since 1998 – an average of about 38 year. And don’t even think about the number of“close calls” that fortunately do not result in a tragic death.

At one point this summer, 10 children died from heatstroke after being left alone in cars. Two were in Florida, according to the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County. Florida, where 66 kids have died since 1998, is second in the country when it comes to leaving kids in hot vehicles.

Two things brought this horrific problem to mind recently. The first was the arrest last week of a 39-year-old Ormond Beach man for allegedly leaving his 2-month-old alone in a hot car while he shopped for balloons and a plant.

The father, Brian Epstein, was charged with child neglect after a Home Depot employee called Daytona Beach Police when he found the infant alone inside the car – which he was looking at because it had a“for sale” sign on it.

Epstein told police that he was in Home Depot for about 10 minutes before returning to his car, which had the windows rolled up. Epstein told police that he“was tired, he forgot. That he put the pacifier in the baby’s mouth and he got his wallet and he forgot to get the baby out.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for the second incident that comes to mind. On Aug. 5, 2010, 2-year-old Haile Brockington died after being left in the back seat of a sweltering day care center van in Delray Beach for more than six hours.

A state investigation found that a driver and the former director of the center had signed a transportation log indicating Haile had exited the van, but that the girl never did. At the time, state law required that two employees visually inspect a day care center van when children enter and exit it, as well as maintain logs of all passengers.

After Haile’s death, Palm Beach County commissioners revised rules and regulations related to day care transport. Now, all day care vans must have alarms that sound each time the ignition is shut off and require the driver to go to the back of the vehicle to shut off the alarm. In addition, a second adult other than the driver must ride in a van if children under age 5 are being transported.

Haile’s tragic death, one of a small string of such fatal incidents throughout Florida that summer, horrified the community and ramped up concern. The following year, there was even a nationwide campaign to eliminate child heatstroke deaths in vehicles by 2013. Locally, child advocates distributed fliers with tips on how to make sure every child makes it out of the car – like using a teddy bear to place in a car seat when the child is not riding in the car, and in the passenger seat as a reminder that a child is in the back seat.

There hasn’t been a child death attributed to heatstroke in Palm Beach County since Haile. That doesn’t mean, however, that the campaign should end. The Palm Beach Post’s Jorge Milian reported in July that since the beginning of 2013, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue had responded to 499 calls of a child trapped in a vehicle – about one per day.

And in June, a hospital CEO’s 7-month-old daughter died after being accidentally left in a minivan while the woman rushed off to attend meetings. A hospital CEO!

In most cases, drivers just aren’t paying enough attention. That was the case with Reggie McKinnon. In 2010, the Fort Myers father forgot his 1-year-old daughter in his sport utility vehicle after returning from a pediatrician’s appointment. McKinnon said he followed his daily routine and forgot to drop off his daughter at day care.

When he returned to his SUV at the end of his workday, he opened the back door to place his laptop inside and found his daughter, Payton, dead in her car seat.“I heard someone screaming,” McKinnon recounted to a group in Boca Raton in 2011.“It was me. The rest is just a total blur.”

When it comes to our kids, this is an issue that we need to keep in focus.

Rick Christie writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: rick_christie@pbpost.com.

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