What do you call the horror of a parent forgetting his or her child in the back seat of the car, unknowingly leaving the defenseless little one to slowly incinerate from within?
The word “accident” doesn’t quite fit – it connotes a split-second, unexpected mishap caused by a concurrence of factors; “incident” seems too flip, callous, and unmoored from causation. “Tragedy” certainly applies, but that term, too, tends to decontextualize matters, as when used to describe terrorist attacks.
Is the unintentional act a crime? Legally, it depends: In Israel, the parents are almost never charged, provided there is no evidence that they were otherwise neglectful or abusive. In the US, charges (ranging from manslaughter to negligent homicide to child abuse or neglect) are filed in just over half of cases – with little consistency or predictability – and the conviction rate is less than 30%, according to one study, reflecting the Gordian knot of ambivalence about whether to hold these grieving, guilt-ridden parents culpable.
The reluctance to bring down the law on the parents, while understandable on a moral level, still presents a dilemma. After all, leaving one’s child behind in a hot car fits squarely within both the colloquial and textbook legal definition of negligence, i.e., “the failure to exercise that degree of care that, in the circumstances, the law requires for the protection of other persons or those interests of other persons that may be injuriously affected by the want of such care.”
Intent, or lack thereof, is immaterial to negligence – one does not intend to be negligent, rather one is negligent by neglecting to take that responsibility called for by the situation. Society has an interest in deterring negligence, especially when it comes to children, and deterrence is one of the main underpinnings of prosecution. Yet when it comes to leaving kids behind in cars, parents, especially in this country, typically get a pass.
An increasing number of experts, however, explain the problem as a fault in memory – not negligence – that could happen to anyone, especially when there is a change in the stressed out parent’s daily routine. They’ve even coined a term: Forgotten Baby Syndrome. The name itself is chilling.
Kids left in cars are a deadly combination, and not just in the height of summer. Vehicle interiors heat up rapidly – 20 to 30 degrees hotter than outside in as many minutes – even in balmy weather, and smaller bodies overheat much faster than adults. But like a slowly spreading rash, the stories keep coming. I’ve lost count of the number of cases, both here in Israel and in the States, reported in the news this summer alone.
What could also be called auto-neglect (double meaning intentional) anguishes me on a visceral level beyond even other types of horrors. As a mother who has struggled with infertility and is exceedingly grateful for my little family, it is difficult to swallow the idea of parents somehow coming to a point where they can forget their baby. That they are exhausted, overworked, and fallible like all human beings is completely understandable, but the gravity of the act remains.
Our generation is consumed by pings and pongs, notifications, updates, battery life. Bluetooth commands and tangles of charging cords make driving a delicate, dangerous dance. Multi-tasking is a drug, its effects – distraction, exhaustion – silently invasive. Could that explain this phenomenon? Should it matter?
Alarms and other devices to remind parents not to forget their children are worthy of investment, but how sad that such solutions are necessary.