Howard County police are continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding a child left forgotten in a car seat who died of hyperthermia in a stifling vehicle.
A neighbor found the 23-month old Ellicott City girl strapped in a car seat in a vehicle parked outside her home one week ago, police said Wednesday, apparently after her mother forgot she had left the toddler there about nine hours earlier. The identity of the child and her parents have not been released, but police said the girl was found in front of a home in the 3100 block of Edgewood Drive.
Child care experts say such tragedies may happen precisely because they're so horrifying a prospect that parents can't imagine it happening and don't take precautions that could help prevent it.
"It takes acknowledgment, and it is one of the things that parents least want to acknowledge," said Dr. Laura Jana, an Omaha-based pediatrician who wrote the book, Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. "It's the last thing you ever want to imagine happening, and we push it away as if 'it could never happen to me.'
"I don't think our brains want us to be able to imagine us doing something like that to our child," said Jana, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the mother of three. "Denial is a very powerful thing."
In other cases in which children have died forgotten in parked cars, parents have been charged with neglect or even manslaughter. The Ellicott City mother has not been charged, and Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said in a statement that she likely woun't be if the incident is "determined to be accidental,"
Howard State's Attorney Dario J. Broccolino said the decision whether to file charges rests with the police. But he added that his office would review the findings to determine whether the incident needed further inquiry.
"It's so fact-specific," Broccolino said. "There are a million variables in these kind of cases."
Paraphrasing the famous remark of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Broccolino added, "It's like pornography. I'll know it [if it's criminal] when I see it. I have to look at the report."
Police said Tuesday that a "a change in routine" in the parents' schedule led to the child being put in her car seat and left unattended for most of the day. Through Llewellyn, Police Chief William McMahon declined comment pending the outcome of the investigation.
Broccolino said that he heard from an officer in the department's child advocacy center that the couple also has an older child. "I was told that's where there was a mix-up," Broccolino said.
According to Lorrie Walker of Safe Kids USA, a Washington-based nonprofit group specializing in preventing injuries to children, this was the 15th death of a child in a locked car this year in the U.S.
Last July, a Bowie woman was charged with reckless endangerment after forgetting that she left her 14-month old in a locked car after dropping three other children off at the mall and going shopping with a fourth. The child was discovered a few hours later and survived.
Some are not so lucky. Last summer, a man in Northern Virginia left his toddler in the family car in the parking lot of a company where he worked. He returned later that day to find the child dead. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but a judge found him not guilty.
Jana and Walker urged parents to create routines that will serve as reminders that children are in the car - especially if they are in the back seat, which is where safety experts say they should be riding, although that also tends to make it more likely that a distracted parent will forget that they're there.
Walker suggests that parents, when putting a child in a car seat, also place a briefcase or important papers on the floor in front of the child.
While it is against Maryland law to leave a child under the age of 8 unattended in a car, parents are rarely charged with anything more than reckless endangerment in most cases, as long as the child survives.
"I can't imagine that any judge can hand down any sentence that is worse than what the parents are doing to themselves," Broccolino said.