Mother facing criminal charges

Young child in distress is pulled from hot car after passer-by calls police

July 01, 2008|By Karen Shih | Karen Shih,Sun Reporter

It was the kind of sight that makes a rescuer smash a vehicle's window: a young child, alone, locked in a car on a hot summer afternoon.

A day after a 14-month-old girl was pulled from a sweltering sport utility vehicle in an Annapolis parking lot, police said yesterday that the toddler's mother faces criminal charges.

And, as they often do when this seasonal danger presents itself, they warned that children can die if left in cars when the weather is warm.

"Even a few minutes can be critical for a child," Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia, an Anne Arundel Fire Department spokesman, said.

Though parents might find it easier to leave the child instead of going through the trouble of unbuckling the child from a car seat, he said, "In that moment of inattention, that is when tragedies strike."

On Sunday afternoon, a woman saw a child left in a car seat in the back seat of a Chevrolet Suburban at Annapolis Harbour Center and called police. When they arrived, the child was "sweating profusely and in distress," according to charging documents.

Firefighters on the scene determined that the child had to be taken out of the car immediately.

After failing to unlock the front door with tools, they broke the back window to reach her, according to charging documents.

The child, showing signs of dehydration, was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center, police said.

Anyone who sees an unattended child in a car is strongly urged to called police, said Sgt. John Gilmer, a county police spokesman. It is illegal in Maryland to leave a child younger than age 8 alone in a car. They must be accompanied by someone age 13 or older.

Police found the girl's mother, who had been shopping with her sister, about an hour after they answered the call.

She told police that she had forgotten she had the child with her and that she had dropped off three other children with her mother at the mall, according to charging documents.

Lorraine Holland Fortlage, 37, of Bowie was charged with reckless endangerment and confining an unattended child, police said.

A woman who answered the phone at the Fortlage home called the incident "unfortunate."

"Obviously it was not done purposely," the woman said. "Thank God she's alive."

Gregory Swain, a lawyer for the family, would not comment on the condition of the girl other than to say she was "OK."

An average of 33 children a year died in cars from heat-related causes nationwide from 1998 to 2004, according to Safe Kids USA, an advocacy organization that seeks to prevent accidental childhood injuries.

Internal car temperatures can reach more than 150 degrees when outside temperatures reach 86 degrees, according to the organization. Keeping windows open a crack has little effect.

In September 2005, two children died after being left in cars in Maryland.

A 5-month-old boy died after being left in a car outside his family's home for about five hours, according to Frederick County prosecutors.

And a 13-month-old boy left in the back of the car for more than three hours while his father was at work in Hunt Valley died two days later.

The man pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of leaving a child unattended in a car and received a suspended 30-day jail sentence and 18 months' probation.

He said he had forgotten the child was in the car.

Parents can keep a stuffed animal in the front passenger seat, or put their briefcases or purses in the back seat, as a reminder of the child's presence, said Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University, who has been studying in-car, heat-related deaths since 2001.

Children are particularly susceptible to heat illnesses because their bodies' cooling systems are much less developed than an adult's, said Null, who published a study on heat stress from enclosed vehicles in Pediatrics, a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 2005.

And the number of children who die of hyperthermia, or extreme heat, doesn't represent the full effect of children being left in cars, said Cyndy Wright-Johnson, director for Maryland Emergency Medical Services for Children and state coordinator for the Safe Kids Coalition.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," she said.

In hot car interiors, children first become "thirsty and irritable," then become dehydrated, which can lead to loss of consciousness or seizures, or possibly a constricted airway, keeping the brain from receiving enough oxygen.

Many cases are resolved with children receiving fluids at a hospital,Wright-Johnson said.

Lethal heat

About 33 children nationwide die each year from heat-related illnesses after being left in cars.

Internal car temperatures can exceed 150 degrees when outside temperatures reach 86 degrees. The temperature in a car can rise nearly 20 degrees in 10 minutes.

Parents can keep a stuffed animal in the front passenger seat as a reminder of the child's presence in the back seat, or can put their briefcases or purses in the back. They can also create a "look-before-you-leave" routine when exiting a car, and arrange for care providers to call if a child does not show up for child care or school.

Sources: Safe Kids USA; San Francisco State University professor Jan Null

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