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OPINION: Toddler's death in hot car calls for compassion, not outrage

This kind of story isn’t the act of a terrible person. It’s the kind of mistake that people make, dozens or hundreds of times in a lifetime, with no consequences.

There are no words.

There are no words for the ache in every parent’s heart when they read a headline about a child dying in a hot car. There are no words for that deep, sinking feeling that hits you right in the gut when the thought jumps into your mind: What if it was my child? What if it was me?

 Baby in car seat/ShutterstockBaby in car seat/Shutterstock

I speak, of course, of the Burnaby case that’s once again blown open the discussion about children left in hot cars. For those who’ve missed it, it’s the bleakest possible story: a 16-month-old boy was left in the car in the midst of this unseasonal heat wave. Hours later, he was found dead.

Needless to say, in this age of social media, the story has travelled fast, and reaction has been swift.

Many of the comments I’ve read have been full of compassion and empathy, with fellow parents sharing in the heartbreak and grief of a child’s death. Then there are the others. As always happens in cases involving children, the outrage began early, and many comments out of the gate have been vicious.

How can you forget your own child? This is murder, I hope he’s charged. What kind of an idiot leaves their own kid locked in a car for hours? What is wrong with people?

And so on, and so on.

It’s that outrage that led me to this post. To beg people to please stop. To take a breath. To realize that we know very little about this case and have no cause to judge anything at all. We don’t, at this point, know how or why the child came to be alone in the car.

But even if the speculation around the case turns out to be true – that the child was left behind by a parent for the length of a work day – the facts still suggest no crime. They suggest only a phenomenon that’s become common enough to get its own name: Forgotten Baby Syndrome.

Again, I stress, we don’t know what happened. But if you’re tempted to rush to judgment on this parent, assuming this to be the case, there’s a beautifully written – and desperately sobering – Washington Post article about this very issue that I urge everyone to read. (A warning: It’s long. And it’s difficult. And it will make you cry.)

It talks about the rise in these forgotten baby cases, and who they happen to:

"Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

“The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

“Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.”

In other words: This isn’t some new thing. And it doesn’t just happen to neglectful, terrible parents. It happens to ordinary, everyday, caring, doing-their-best parents who simply forgot to take their child out of the car.

Yes, literally forgot.

If you’re not a parent, and even if you are, it’s tempting to respond with bewilderment: “But how could anyone forget their own child?”

I’m no neuroscientist, but people with more expertise than I have studied this issue – and found it to be, as this one article describes it, "a competition between the brain's 'habit memory' system and its 'prospective memory' system - and the habit memory system prevails." 

In the simplest possible terms, if your typical day involves a particular routine, your brain is likely to simply remember that routine – regardless of what else you may have changed up that day.

You know that time you drove home from work, intending to stop at Safeway to pick up milk for tomorrow’s breakfast, but you forgot because you’re programmed to go straight home? Or that time you were going to stop and mail a letter on the way to the office, but you forgot because you’re programmed to head straight for the office?

Well, guess what? You pretty much just made the same mistake made by parents who forget their own children in cars.

We don’t know the specifics of this case yet, and perhaps we never will. It doesn’t need to be our business, quite frankly.

But we can easily imagine a scenario where it could happen.

Imagine you’re the parent who doesn’t usually do daycare drop-off, but today, something has changed – the usual drop-off parent has an appointment that can’t be missed, perhaps, or is sick at home in bed. So you put the child in the car, buckle him in and drive off – and by the time you reach the office, the toddler is sound asleep in the back. Just as you’re getting out of the car, a phone call comes to further distract you from the moment.  You head on to work not even thinking twice – “habit memory” being such a strong force - and your child remains sleeping in the back seat.

End of story.

This kind of story isn’t the act of a terrible person. It’s the kind of mistake that people make, dozens or hundreds of times in a lifetime, with no consequences.

Add in a heat wave. Add in the fact that, apparently, no one walks by the car and questions the presence of an unattended baby.  And, suddenly, a simple mistake becomes a tragedy.

Yes, I’m a mother. And no, I’ve never forgotten my child in the car. You know why?

Not because I’m totally organized and never forget anything. Not because I always have enough sleep, because I’m never stressed or distracted, because I always have her front of mind no matter what else I may be doing or where else I may be going that day. Ha. Far from it. No, I have never forgotten my child in the car simply because I have one of those kids who will not sleep in the car - and if by some miracle she does sleep in the car, the act of turning of the engine will jolt her awake.

If I ever tried to forget my kid in the car, she wouldn’t hesitate to remind me of her presence.

If I had another kind of child – like, the kind who actually falls asleep and stays asleep – I could imagine a dozen mornings in the past six years where I could easily have left her in her carseat and gone on my way. Would I have forgotten her all day long? Would anyone have asked a question that reminded me to check on her? Would I have gone to check on her in time? Would we have been the next headline?

It doesn't bear contemplation.

So stop. Stop with the judgment, with the shaming, with the condemnation.

A child has died. And nothing, absolutely nothing, is served by anyone jumping to point fingers at his parents or to demand “justice” from the police and the courts.

If indeed this was a case of “forgotten baby,” there’s nothing the criminal justice system can ever do to the parent in question that can be worse than the knowledge that this child has died.

For this boy’s family, I have nothing but empathy.

And for all of you, I have a plea: Please, please, please, let’s all respond with compassion so that this family, in their darkest hour, can find some small solace in knowing that their community is here for them.