Lapse of memory can be deadly for kids in hot cars

Reggie McKinnon of Cape Coral, Fla., left work, picked up his baby daughter at the nearby day care center, took her to the doctor, got good news about the tubes in her ears and headed back to work on the morning of March 8, 2010.

Whenever he’d seen stories about the occasional mom or dad who left their kids in hot cars by accident, with fatal results, he’d thought, “no way!”

But when he got to work that day, he turned in to park, instead of going the extra block to the day care.

His briefcase, which he always kept in the back seat, was already at work.

And when he came out that afternoon and went to put his briefcase into that back seat, he had already become one of those parents he used to read about.

“Anyone who knows me can tell you how good a dad I am,” he said.

It doesn’t take long.

The glass in the windows of a car are transparent to the sunlight, but the glass isn’t transparent to the electromagnetic energy emitted by the interior surfaces of the cars when that sunlight strikes them. So instead of traveling back outside, that electromagnetic energy becomes trapped, heating up car interiors quickly, according to Stephen Lynch, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State University.

Moreover, children’s bodies also heat quickly, being unable to get rid of heat as efficiently as adults.

“I had to call my wife and tell her,” said McKinnon, who is a spokesman for Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization that has campaigned for years to prevent hot-car deaths, a campaign that steps up during the summer and in expectation of July 31, National Heatstroke Prevention Day.

McKinnon had to explain how 17-month-old Payton Lyn died on his watch.

But his wife has stuck by him.

“I’m very fortunate,” he said.

Most such cases end up in divorce, he said.

They both grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., and they’ve been together since 10th grade.

It took them seven years to have their first child.

“She knew I would never intentionally harm (her),” he said.

But police questioned him.

“I went through the story over and over,” he said.

Twenty states – including Florida and Pennsylvania – have specific laws about children left unattended in vehicles, McKinnon said.

A federal law makes it a crime to leave a child unattended in a vehicle more than 15 minutes, if it results in bodily harm, he said.

He didn’t attempt to deny the statutes applied to him, and, in keeping with his lawyer’s advice, he took a plea deal that could have kept him from serving five years in prison.

“I couldn’t go to jail,” he said. “I have other children.”

Under the plea agreement, he had to serve five years’ probation and speak for 20 hours to groups about what had happened, as a cautionary example.

Ultimately, the authorities cut his probation in half, and he completed his community service within a month.

“All that had no bearing on how hard it is to lose my daughter,” he said.

He speaks now to comply with a promise he made to Payton, after her death.

Payton was the youngest of three.

Now the McKinnons have four – the youngest of whom is 20 months old.

So McKinnon continues to handle kids in car seats.

“I’m constantly reminding myself,” he said.

People treat him differently than they would otherwise.

While family and friends have been supportive, others don’t seem to know how to approach what happened.

He’s had a few shocking encounters.

“Mainly just words from people that don’t know me,” he said.

Once he was at an event, and a lady began talking about “the guy who left his daughter to die.”

That guy should have been put to death, she said.

“Ma’am, that was me,” he replied.

She turned white and walked away.

But most encounters have been positive, including those with people who break down crying in front of him.

He’s been to priests and doctors about it.

He’s had a brain scan.

He wanted it to find “a giant tumor” that could have explained what he’d done.

But there was nothing.

“It’s a hard thing,” he said. “The brain just works in a weird way.”

Studies done by a professor in Florida indicate that the brain doesn’t always differentiate between the intrinsic value of things it wants to remember, he said.

A cup of coffee?

A daughter?

The brain can forget either one.

In his case, it was a “perfect storm” that included a non-routine trip, job-related stress and the day care center’s location just beyond his workplace on the way back from the doctor’s office.

The day he forgot Payton was the day he left behind his judgmentalism, McKinnon said.

The circumstances around the unintentional death of a child in a car would exacerbate the grief one would feel if the death were an ordinary one, according to Denis Navarro, a psychologist with UPMC Altoona.

The common stages of grief are denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

“This adds guilt,” Navarro said.

That guilt is likely to be “overwhelming,” Navarro said.

There’s also shame and the “shock and disbelief” of friends and neighbors – and of the general public, because it has been on the news, he said.

Navarro suspects that people who experience such a trauma can “enter into a state of unreality,” asking themselves what other mistakes they’re capable of making – and eventually descend into a kind of “fatalism and helplessness,” Navarro said.

It’s hard for people to understand how a caretaker can just forget, said Kate Carr, CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide.

They’re “skeptical” about the unintentional cases, she said.

Joann Nardon of Altoona, who recently wrote a letter to the Mirror about kids left in hot cars, shares that skepticism.

“It should not happen,” Nardon said – although she softened that declaration by adding that she realizes some people are on “overload” and “not thinking.”

For most people, such forgetting seems “impossible,” said Jolene Kopriva, Blair County president judge.

“We all like to feel that if we have a responsibility for a child, we would be in a hypervigilant state,” Kopriva said.

The recent case of a Georgia man charged with deliberately leaving his toddler son to die in a hot car may aggravate such skepticism, it would seem.

That Georgia case is especially “horrific” – if the charges turn out to be justified – because the perpetrator would be trying to exploit the honest misfortunes in the unintentional death cases as a cover for an act of murder, according to Beth Bolton Penna, assistant district attorney in Cambria County.

But Kopriva has been privy to extraordinary forgetfulness – albeit ultimately harmless and comical.

In high school, she dated a boy who would go to the grocery store with his elderly grandparents.

His grandfather always sat in front, and his grandmother in back.

Once, after loading the groceries in his trunk, he drove home and went to open the car door for his grandmother – only to discover she wasn’t there.

He’d left her at the store.

When he and Kopriva discussed the incident, Kopriva and he laughed.

Unfortunately, when a child is the one forgotten, and that child is inside a hot car, the result is no matter for laughing.

“We can lose ourselves in a lot of different ways,” Kopriva said.

We’re all just human, she added.

Then there are cases where we take a calculated risk.

It might seem like a minimal one.

You see your baby sleeping peacefully, and you know the unpleasantness that can occur if you wake him.

It can be tempting for parents to run into a store “for a minute” in cases like that, said Sherry Turchetta, community educator for UPMC Altoona and coordinator for Safe Kids Blair County.

“But therein lies the problem,” Turchetta said.

Once a parent goes into a store, things can get dicey.

Maybe the register doesn’t work, she said.

Or maybe the checkout line is long.

Or maybe the parent meets a friend.

“Things can get away,” she said.

A parent might never forget the child is out in the parking lot in the car, which is getting hot.

But even when the parent is keenly aware, and hurrying to get those errands done, it can still be too late.

It’s also possible that in the course of running those errands, the parent becomes distracted, and what started as an intentional, controlled absence becomes a forgetting.

It can be a fatal forgetting.

Nardon recently witnessed two local cases where adults apparently took the calculated risk.

Neither resulted in harm – but what she saw disturbed her.

In one case, a toddler was in the back seat of an idling vehicle.

Nardon was planning to call 911, but the caretaker arrived first.

“Even if [the caretaker] went inside the store to just pay a bill, this is unacceptable,” Nardon wrote.

In the other case, a boy of about 6 years old and an infant were in a car.

The windows were down – which might have helped with the heat, but it created a security risk.

“Unacceptable,” she wrote.

She regretted not calling about that second case when she got home, and couldn’t get it out of her mind.

In the letter, she urged others, when they’re out and about, to watch for kids alone in cars.

“Let’s all help each other to notice,” she wrote. “You might just save a life.”

Although she’s a judge, Kopriva has learned to suspend judgment until she can learn “the full story and context” of particular cases.

Unless you “get to the underlying root” of a problem, you might not be able to change the conditions that created it, and so might not be able to end the problem for the defendant, she said.

She spoke of complex situations, as when mothers living in squalor lack support systems enabling them to get an education to obtain a job to earn the money to make things better.

Bolton Penna also spoke of the need to look at the “totality of circumstances” – including the “egregiousness” of the situation and the behavior of the parents before and afterward – when considering whether to prosecute in the case of kids left in hot cars.

But in “intentional” cases – the ones where caregivers are planning to go in for only a minute or two for an errand or two – Turchetta recommends absolutism, despite the temptations.

“Make it a rule,” she said, “never to leave a child in a car alone, even for a minute.”

A mundane trip, an ordinary day, a moment of forgetfulness – or what seems like a minimal risk.

Then catastrophe.

People ask McKinnon if it helps him to talk about what happened to him.

In a way, he said.

But in a way, it doesn’t, because he has to relive it, he said.

“My plight is to share,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.