Minutes Matter – Simple summertime errands can have fatal consequences
By LPR Staff
Plano, Texas. March 21, 2001. A mother believes she has dropped off her 5-month-old son at daycare. Later that day, she discovered she’d left him sitting in his carseat all day. The child died.
Lexington, Ky. July, 1999. A babysitter leaves her 11-month-old charge in the car while she takes her 3-year-old daughter sh
opping. When the woman returns two hours later, the baby is dead.
These gruesome headlines repeat themselves over and over, every year. Without realizing they are putting their children in danger, hundreds of parents each year leave little ones in the car, either to run a quick errand or because they don’t want to disturb the child’s sleep.
Unfortunately, particularly in the summer when outdoor temperatures soar and a car can become an oven within minutes, what starts as an act of convenience can quickly become an act of cruelty.
According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, more than 1,500 children in the United States have died since 2001 as a result of “heat-related incidents,” most commonly children being left in vehicles. Of those, 204 occurred in 2008 alone. Six of those deaths were in Texas.
In an effort to keep Lockhart out of the tragic headlines, Lockhart Police Chief Mike Lummus announced this week that he intends to ask patrol officers to spend a little more time focused on parking lots, looking for children left in vehicles while their parents or guardians shop.
“I know how hot it gets, even in my own car when it’s parked in the shade in the summer,” Lummus said. “I can’t even imagine being trapped in a car out there in a parking lot with no shade, with the sun coming straight down. We can’t tolerate that, and we need to let people know that it’s not just a ticketable offense, but it can be an offense where we’ll pick you up and put you in jail.”
Statistics suggest that a vehicle left in the sun on an 85 degree day can heat up to 120 degrees in 30 minutes. When temperatures soar to the triple digits, the temperature inside a vehicle can increase to 140 degrees within 15 minutes, and as outside temperatures increase, the time it takes for a hot car to become a death chamber decreases.
Children are particularly susceptible to heat-related illness, DFPS statistics said, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which can lead to death or permanent disability within minutes in extremely hot weather. Heat stroke, also known as hyperthermia, can cause shock, seizures, irregular heartbeats, heart attack, liver or kidney failure and brain damage.
Under the Texas Penal Code, leaving a child under 7 years old in a vehicle for more than five minutes when that child is not supervised by an individual over the age of 14 is a Class C Misdemeanor, usually punishable by a fine of not more than $500. However, Caldwell County District Attorney Trey Hicks said parents should not be lulled into a false sense of security by the idea that they might only receive a ticket for leaving a child in the car.
“While this law is specific, if the facts warrant it, a higher charge might be sought, such as Child Endangerment, which is a felony,” he said. “Personally, I’d also like to see this statute broadened to include animals and pets, because there is nothing more pitiful than seeing a pet in the car in the parking lot at about 3 p.m.”
Both Lummus and Hicks asked for the public’s help in protecting children in Lockhart and Caldwell County. While LPD will patrol and Hicks’ office will prosecute offenders to the best of their ability, they realize they won’t see every case, and hope that additional eyes on parking lots will help.
“Absolutely, if someone sees a child left in a car, they need to contact us, especially with the weather being the way it has,” Lummus said. “If not the Lockhart Police Department, then the department wherever they are, or the Sheriff’s Office, so we can go out there and take care of it and help that child.”
Still, the best way to avoid putting children in unexpected danger is to watch over them. If a parent can’t leave the children home with another responsible party while running errands, they should take the extra time to take the children into stores with them.
Addtionally, DFPS recommends placing an item such as a purses, lunch or briefcase in the backseat next to where the child is sitting to make it more difficult to forget the child is there, particularly when changing routines in picking up or dropping off small children.
If you see a child unattended in a vehicle, call 9-1-1 immediately.