ST. GEORGE — A community in Mississippi is still reeling from the death of a toddler left alone in her mother’s police patrol car less than one week ago.
The child joins a gritty statistic: 36 children have died across America so far this year after being left in a vehicle unattended, according to statistics from KidsAndCars.org.
While it may be obvious that temperatures rise dangerously in a vehicle on a hot day, a change to cooler temperatures can be deceiving because the danger of serious injury or death still exists for children who may be left behind, David Heaton, public information officer with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said.
The tragic sequence of events in Mississippi was set in motion after police officer Cassie Barker ended her patrol shift at 6 a.m. Friday, then reportedly drove to visit colleague Clark Ladner — with her young child in the car.
Barker went inside Ladner’s home, leaving 3-year-old Cheyenn Hyer unattended in her patrol car for at least four hours, as reported by Sun Herald news reporter Margaret Baker.
When the officer returned to her car she found the toddler unconscious and by the time emergency officials arrived the toddler was unresponsive. The child was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
Barker told deputies she left her daughter strapped in the car seat in her patrol car because she was planning to only stay a few minutes, and left the engine running with the air conditioning on.
Both officers were off duty at the time, however an independent investigation into the incident is underway. The officers were initially placed on leave during the investigation and on Tuesday they were fired, the Sun Herald reports.
Barker has since been charged with manslaughter, according to information obtained from the Sun Herald.
Since 1990, 11 children in Utah have died from heatstroke after being left in a vehicle, Heaton said. He noted that 661 children in the U.S. died from vehicle-related heatstroke between 1998 and 2015 and more than half of those deaths resulted from the child being forgotten in the car.
“A change in routine and stress are the primary reasons reported by parents who have lost children,” Heaton said, “and another part of the tragedy is that they have to live with it for the rest of their lives.”
Another 29 percent were caused by children playing in a vehicle while unattended and 17 percent were intentionally left in the vehicle. Those children were not left in the vehicle for malicious reasons, or by an abusive parent, he said, but by parents who didn’t see the danger or who were unaware that children can die in a vehicle in temperatures as warm as 60 degrees.
If the outside temperature is 70 degrees, he said, then the inside of the vehicle can reach 100 degrees within 20 minutes, and if it’s 100 degrees outside then temperatures inside the car can reach 120 degrees within 10 minutes.
“Substance abuse can also be a contributing factor with some of the cases,” Heaton said, “or anything that impairs a parent’s thinking.”
KidsAndCars.org, an organization that has conducted extensive research on how often children are injured, abducted, disabled or killed because they are left unattended in or around vehicles, also emphasizes the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome.
“The worst thing any parent or caregiver can do is think that this could never happen to them or that they are not capable of unknowingly leaving their child behind,” said Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org., said. “This can and does happen to the most loving, responsible and attentive parents; no one is immune.”
Many prevention tips, including the “Look Before You Lock” program that helps parents get into the habit of always opening the rear car door and checking the back seat before leaving the vehicle, and other resources can be found at KidsAndCars.org.
“Don’t ever leave your kids in the vehicle – ever,” Heaton said.
Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.
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