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  • Jul31Wed

    Preventing tragic mistakes

    July 31, 2019 Melodie Bissell

    There is plenty of talk about the risk of getting vehicular heatstroke, particularly during the months of July and August. While the vast majority know not to leave children, vulnerable adults or pets unattended in the car, history tells us that it can and does happen – and knowing may not have anything to do with it.

    This week, we followed the heart-wrenching story of Juan Rodriguez, a loving father whose tragic mistake cost the lives of two of his children.

    Rodriguez, his wife and their three children live in Rockland County, N.Y. Rodriguez works as a social worker at a veterans’ hospital. On his way to work, he dropped off his four-year-old at nursery school. He arrived at work in the Bronx at 8 a.m. and put in a full shift of counselling.  

    It wasn’t until he was on his way home at 4 p.m. that he saw his one-year-old twins strapped in rear-facing car seats, no longer breathing.

    “I blanked out,” he told the police when they arrived on scene, the New York Times reported. “I killed my babies.” Juan Rodriguez was charged with two counts each of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and endangering the welfare of a child.

    Wracked with grief and guilt, the heartbroken father struggled to understand how he could have forgotten to drop them off at daycare before heading to work. How did he have such a significant memory lapse? How could he have forgotten his own children? 

    Unfortunately, it's more common than you might think. David Diamond, a University of South Florida psychology professor who studies this exact phenomenon: why otherwise loving parents forget their children in cars. Diamond explained that about half of the nearly 800 children mistakenly left behind in cars since 1998 died in similar circumstances: a parent or caregiver had meant to drop the children off at daycare or preschool but forgot, leaving them in the car.



    As I read this story I was weeping – weeping at the loss of the lives of two precious children, and on behalf of their father and mother. 

    I’m sure we can all recall times when we’ve forgotten to do something. Thankfully, in the vast majority of cases a memory lapse does not cost lives. However, it’s important to remember that the choices we make and distractions that call for our attention often come at a cost. 

    Should this father be tried for a crime? As much as I believe that it was an accident and that grief and guilt are punishment on their own, I also believe the judicial system has an important role to play in ruling out premeditation and determining appropriate consequences.

    This story leaves me heartbroken.

    This story also calls me to think how we can stop this from happening. I have come across many useful suggestions on preventing these tragic accidents. Simple things like making sure your briefcase, purse or lunch bag is in the backseat so you have to retrieve it when you leave the car or making a habit of doing vehicle checks when we get in and out of the car could make the difference between remembering and forgetting.

    But perhaps some of the responsibility lies beyond the parents/guardians. As they say, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Should daycare providers not communicate with parents throughout the day, notifying both parents when a child is dropped off and picked up, and checking in with parents when a child doesn’t show up? Sending pictures and updates of the child via text or email throughout the day is another way of reducing the risk of child endangerment.

    Unfortunately, human error means we will continue to see stories like Juan Rodriguez’s in the news. While we can’t eliminate risk altogether, we can play our part in reducing it. We are left with the call to raise the bar on protection, and report any and every child in need of protection. Strengthening the lines of communication between parents/guardians, and between families and childcare services or schools, will go a long way in ensuring our kids are safe.

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