Saturday, March 14, 2009

Forgotten Children

A couple of weeks ago Heather wrote a funny post about the time she was driving alone in the car, the first time in a really long while she'd been in the car by herself. She saw a train and proceeded to point out the 'choo choo', quite forgetting that her children were not with her. I had giggled at the image the post produced, reminiscing about the times I'd done some equally silly thing in the car, feeling good, somewhere inside, that our children always seem to be on our minds no matter what we're doing.

Then a few days after that, the Washington Post Sunday Magazine carried an article titled 'Fatal Distraction', a story about the parents who forget their children are in the car and go about their business. Over the past couple of years, particularly during the summer, I'd started noticing news items of such babies. The stories are prevalent in the summer because for a small child locked in a car parked outside, the combination of heat and humidity can prove to be fatal.

It is, as the article says, an 'incomprehensible, modern way' in which children die. Children are put in the back of the car and they are seated facing the back of the car for their safety, because that is the safest position for the mandatory car seats. So a parent getting down from the car and getting ready to go to work or to the grocery store or to the doctor cannot see the baby unless they go round to the back and look for the baby.

Of course, the first reaction to any story such as the ones profiled in the article is one of judgement: "How could they do that? How could they forget their own child? How could they be so careless? They must not care for the child. I would never do such a stupid thing as that. What could be so important in their lives that they forgot their baby?" You try, half-heartedly, to make sense of the how of it all, and are only too willing to give up.

Not so Gene Weingarten.

A humor columnist for the Washington Post, Weingarten turns a gentle, sympathetic, understanding eye toward these tortured souls. And in doing so, tells us our first reaction is to be expected, but that the parents really deserve better than that. They have punished themselves way more than any of us or our judicial system could ever do - they have put themselves under a life sentence of guilt; they have wanted to die themselves; they know what they've done and will live the rest of their lives fitfully reliving the events of that fateful day. And really, there go I but for the grace of god, right?

At one of the trials, the defendant's family took the witness stand in his defense:
From the witness stand, Harrison's mother defiantly declared that Miles had been a fine son and a perfect, loving father. Distraught but composed, Harrison's wife, Carol, described the phone call that her husband had made to her right after he'd discovered what he'd done, the phone call she'd fielded on a bus coming home from work. It was, she said, unintelligible screaming.
The part of the story that resonated with me the most was this: present at the trial of one of the parents were two women not related to the defendant in any way - they were not friends or family or co-workers or part of the court. They were two women who had done the same terrible thing to their children. They did not need to be there, they had no role in the case; they did not want to be there. But they felt compelled to be there. Perhaps no one understood the defendant's state of mind better than those two women.

That is human connection at a level so raw, so fundamental and so refined - all at the same time.


Sylvia K said...

A very thought provoking post. I have wondered how a person could forget their child was in the car, not sure I understand, but can understand what a nightmare it would be to realize what you had. I have four and they are close together in age and at the time they were growing up the rules weren't as strict as they are now. It's possible I could have forgotten one, although I don't want to believe I could have, but in regards to this type of thing, it was a blessing to have four lively kids in the car at the same time. I can only hurt for those on trial and for the women who came to the trial even though it had nothing to do with them! What a nightmare to have to relive it over again.

Kavi said...

To realise that you had forgotten would be even more cruel, i think !

It indeed is raw and refined !



Ardra said...

I choked as I read this post- especially the last two paras...cannot bear to imagine their state of mind...

Ugich Konitari said...

The trauma of a parent who has had to face such an event is a universal kind of thing. But what is not universal is the society that defines certain areas of life as not "kinderfreundlisch", prompting such events in a society where nuclear families is the norm.

I keep thinking of the growing migrant nuclear families here in India, and families carrying all their children on a , say, motorcycle, when they go somewhere , so much at risk on Mumbai's roads. Again another kind of risk. But the option of leaving a child locked up somewhere was certainly not there.

The idea, that children, like cell phones, may or may not be "allowed" somewhere, is preposterous. Maybe that needs to change so people dont lock up their children like this.

Lilly said...

I am not sure I can imagine doing this either but I would never say never. That is somethng that parents would never forget its true. I have heard of cases here where people have left children locked in the car while they go into the casino for hours at a time. Every case must be different. I remember I accidentally locked my daughter in the car once when she was about 2 and she was fast asleeep. Oh the panic was horrible. Great post.

Nino's Mum said...

I can't relate to this in the sense that we're so scared of leaving kids in cars alone here and at the same time, there is always someone to point it out - India's filled with concerned bystanders, but I can honestly imagine the hows that can make this happen, and how excruciating bearing the consequences can be.
Like you said, the first reaction was so guaranteed, but its so important to in a way put yourself in their shoes.
Such a scary, and such a moving post.

Frankie Anon said...

This happened last year in the city where I live. My heart just broke for the parents, two professionals (doctors, if I recall)who were so tired and distracted. The dad thought the mom had taken the baby from the car. The baby was sleeping when he got to work and he just didn't realize she was in the back seat. It was so tragic. The parents were vilified in the press, but no amount of scorn or punishment will match the guilt they will always carry.

Now, this seems a strange transition and maybe inappropriate to the topic of this post, but I am happy to share some happy news: Blogpourri, I have just nominated you for a Sisterhood Award! Visit my blog for details.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Ugich, the children are not left in the car locked up on purpose. The parents forget that their children are in the car and leave them there by mistake. There is nothing that requires them to leave a child in the car alone. I'm so sorry if my writing gave you that impression.

@ NM, I think I might have given you the same impression as Ugich. Sorry about that. The kids are not left alone in the car on purpose. The parents forget that they were left in the car. If anyone noticed a child in the car alone, they would be calling for help here too. Only the way the cars are designed here it's not very easy to look into one and notice something.

@ Sylvia, my heart went out to those women too.

@ Kavi, Ardra, this was such a sad article, I half did not want people to read it.

@ Lilly, if they went into the casino being fully aware of the child in the car - I just don't know what to say to that. That is truly a terrible thing to do!

@ Frankie, that is indeed a sad story. And I can totally see the press being all over it. I truly wish we could understand and sympathize and leave it at that.

Debbie said...

It does seem incomprehensible. But, then I think of the crazy things I've done or forgotten and realize that you are right - there but by the grace of God.

Pamposh Dhar said...

Sujatha, I've only just discovered your blog (via Frankie's). What a thoughtful and thought-provoking article this is. I'm glad I discovered this blog!

Nino's Mum said...

My god. Your clarification just totally changed the meaning, changed my reaction. I'm glad you put this story up, Suj.

nsiyer said...

Wonderful. Very inspiring and strikes a chord.

Anonymous said...

Finger pointing will never solve this problem. Why not study the situation and come up with precautionary measures to shun future similar occurrence? We cannot just forget this irresponsible behavior. I pity the helpless victims.

Unknown said...

I am very much in accord with everyone choosing empathy for parents and caretakers who find themselves in the horrible scenario painted by Gene Weingarten in his Fatal Distraction article.

My partner experienced her fatal distraction almost two years ago. Ollie and Zoie, her surrogate children were beautiful English Setters, were killed in their own driveway upon returning from one of their first outings since Zoie delivered Ollie's litter of eight puppies about four months prior. All it took was a momentary distraction to disrupt the routine of opening the back gate of the SUV immediately after turning off the ignition.

Everything happens for a reason ... right? How could something so horrible - committing matricide - be preordained for the greater good? Life had meaning up until that tragic moment ... joy was replaced by heart-wrenching guilt, shame, self-loathing, and so on. While still in shock after unsuccessfully administering CPR to her precious kids, their off-spring were beginning to pick up the foreign scent of horror unknown to everyone who loved them. The local police were called so animal control could come remove Ollie and Zoie before the puppies discovered what happened. Two officers responded, took a report and left. Within a week the citation for animal abuse arrived in the mail. Followed by a return visit of the officers, this time with a warrant for her arrest and prosecution.

The charges were eventually dropped, but not before the local paper reported the arrest for the weekly "police blotter". Truly insult to injury; on top of her own self-sentencing of life with daily regret, guilt, shame and a never-ending post-traumatic stress depression.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. We all know people we love (even ourselves occasionally) who get caught up in the hysterical activity of life as we know it. If we are to learn from our mistakes and seek to find the good in even the most horrific of life's daily dramas ~ how could anyone make sense, let alone 'good' come from this?

One day while sitting behind the wheel of her replacement vehicle in traffic, she had an epiphany. A blinding flash of the obvious. The solution was all around her, everywhere. The answer was hiding in plain sight. There are sensors, bells, lights, horns and other electronic devices to warn drivers when lights are left on; keys in ignition; door ajar; engine needs immediate attention; etc., etc. In fact, computer-generated warnings taking the place of our mother's button-pushing will kick in as the final straw to an already stressful day - should you be so lucky to have one of those upgrades!

Finally, the reason for so much heartache and pain was going to be redirected into the creation of a lifesaving system that will prevent another living being from being killed ever again in such a horrible manner. Life still was miserable, but now there was a mission to accomplish in order to make Ollie and Zoie's lives not be wasted. The legacy project began.

She found a brilliant engineer who understood what was possible and together, they designed a System For Preventing Death by Overheating in an Enclosed Vehicle. Her brilliant engineer was also an intellectual property specialist and patent attorney. The design characteristics had to accommodate all the variations of vehicles currently manufactured world-wide in order to meet the demanding specifications of the United States Patent and Trademark Office before they will accept an application for a patent. First, they have to research every aspect of the design to see if ANY aspect of the proposed concept infringes on a patent already issued/awarded.

They say the devil is in the details and that is probably true. However, if an angel is sent to make things right; the details will be handled.

On February 13, 2008 the United States Patent Office put their stamp of approval on the application submitted and now the patent is pending for EVERY new vehicle manufactured to be sold in America to have a sensor here, a wire there and a few lines of computer code added to any vehicle, foreign or domestic, and no more babies, puppies or other living beings will be needlessly killed in an enclosed vehicle.

That was the easy part. If the devil is in the details and miracles will take an Act of Congress ... what are the odds all three CEOs couldn't agree to a Private Jet Plane Pool when they went to Washington with their hands out looking for a taxpayer loan because none of their pals on Wall Street would give them any of THEIR bailout money???

So that's what it takes to get this done and timing is everything. The only reason every car has seatbelts, airbags and trunk releases is because Congress passed laws ordering automakers to install these SAFETY DEVICES.

Would you help us get petitions signed and circulated to everyone you know with children and/or pets who would like to keep them alive? This is a pretty easy choice, isn't it?

We also started to try and get the word out and we will put more information on the blogsite as we learn our way around cyberspace.

Will you please help? If you know where else I should go, I'm open to all suggestions.

Thank you for your site. I believe I got lucky finding you today.

Anonymous said...

I watched a woman on Oprah who had become the target of national hate after she left her daughter in the car by mistake. Her daughter died and as a result the woman lost her job as an elementary school teacher and people came up with the usual 'how could she' etc etc. I think what a lot of us forget is that with the good that is Parenthood there is also a lot of multitasking, trying to keep up and especially for women- trying to be the supermom. It was heartbreaking to watch the woman cry during the show as she talked about her daughter and about how a busy day and hassled day turned out to be fatal for her daughter.