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The Forgotten Baby: Crime or Mistake?

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When a mother leaves her baby alone in the car, do you think she should be punished?

Baby sleeping in car seat

Gina Kaysen Fernandes: As a working mother of three, Jane D's life is a constant juggling act -- and one day last June she dropped the ball. In an effort to get everything done on her "to do" list, Jane made a terrible mistake that she never thought would ever happen to her. She accidentally left her 4-week-old baby boy alone in his car seat when she ran into a store to run an errand.

Within 10 minutes, someone spotted the newborn and called police. When Jane heard her license plate number broadcasted over the store's intercom "it hit me like a bolt."

Jane suddenly remembered, "the baby's not with my husband, he's with me!" Luckily her newborn was okay, but Jane is forever haunted by what happened. "It's a hard thing to come to terms with ... that you could harm the one you love," she says.

About 40 children die every year of what's known as vehicular hypothermia. While the tragic stories of babies dying in hot cars grab sensational headlines, child advocates say the act of unintentionally leaving a child in the backseat is much more common than you might think. "It's not about parenting, it's about how memories let us down," said Janette Fennell who runs the nonprofit organization, Kids and Cars. "It's not that they forget they have a kid," Fennell explains. "It has more to do with how our memory works, or in this case, how our memory doesn't work."

Researchers have found that several factors such as sleep deprivation, work-related stress, marital problems and certain medications can affect the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the most critical parts of the brain used for multi-tasking. If you're feeling exhausted and under stress, your brain is less likely to be able to handle multiple demands.

Jane attributes her memory lapse to "Forgotten Baby Syndrome," which occurs when there's a combination of lack of sleep, stress, emotion and a change in routine. Her distracted mind clicked on autopilot and she believed her child was safe and in the care of her husband. "I was just as in shock as everyone else," said Jane, who describes herself as "the ideal mother."

"I remember the day it happened to me," said Sunny Hostin, a former prosecutor and legal analyst for CNN and FOX News Channel. The self-described "supermom" told momlogic how she and her husband "completely forgot" their 2-year-old daughter was sleeping in the car seat when they headed into Home Depot. They realized their mistake a few minutes later as they entered the store. But the episode has changed the way Hostin thinks about the issue, especially when it comes to prosecuting criminal charges in fatal cases.

"I feel conflicted. There's always the question of was there real, criminal negligence or just a mother overwhelmed with too many tasks who made a tragic mistake?" said Hostin. She's seeing a growing movement towards prosecuting these cases and charging parents with more severe crimes. But the crackdown is unlikely to stop a parent from making this mistake. "The fear of getting arrested is not going to prevent you from forgetting," said Jane. Hostin believes the real punishment is living with the guilt. "If you've killed your kid, that's a life sentence," she says.

After authorities arrested Jane and charged her with child endangerment, the local media demonized her. "I was terrified to talk," said Jane who is now sharing her story with momlogic in hopes of educating other moms about the subject that few are willing to discuss. 

Many will argue that's not an excuse when it comes to the safety of our children. There's no clear-cut answer on how to deal with the tragic outcomes. Those who have suffered the consequences hope critics can find some compassion. "We're not monsters. We're just normal people who took on too much," says Jane.

Here's how you can avoid Forgotten Baby Syndrome:

• Make an agreement with your daycare provider to offer a call-back reminder service. If your child doesn't arrive at daycare, the provider will call you at home first and then at work to confirm the whereabouts of your child.

• Be mindful if your spouse/partner drops your baby off at daycare when it's not part of their daily routine. Call them to make sure your child was dropped off.

• Have a visual cue, such as putting the diaper bag in the passenger seat reminding you the baby is in the car.

• Always put something you need in the backseat like your purse or wallet.

• Call your spouse/partner after you've arrived at your destination.

next: Arrogant Americans Deserve Haiti's Wrath
16 comments so far | Post a comment now
anon February 8, 2010, 4:52 AM

seriously, this is my worst nightmare. I struggle with conflicted feelings even when i realize i forgot something in the house and have to run in to get it: do i unbuckle the 2 babies and go through the process again or do i run quickly back into my apt (where i can see the parking lot from my window) alone and risk someone seeing 2 babies alone in the car for 3 minutes and calling the police? I’m so torn all the time! it really is sad that the world has come to that point, though, where I would have such torn feelings. I feel bad for this mom. Every mother makes mistakes, some more serious than others, but we all make them. I feel bad that her mistakes have to be so public.

Anonymous February 8, 2010, 5:51 AM

Its so sad but it happens. I consider myself a great mom. I live for my three kids and love every minute I spend with them. When my second child was in preschool I was getting ready to drop him off and then head to work. But like most working moms I had a gazillion things on my mind just trying to figure out how to get everything done, work and home stuff. I completely forgot to drop him off at school. By the time I was well into ten minutes on the highway he made a noise (he was a quiet three year old) and I was shocked to realize he was still in the car. I had to bring him to work with me and have my mother in law take him to preschool before she went to work. My coworkers teased me about the fact that I could have been “one of those moms” that forgot their kids in the car but it really struck me hard. That was nine years ago but it still hits me today.

Melinda February 8, 2010, 10:42 AM

I’m sad to say something like this has happened to me when my oldest was little. It was ahectic morning after a sleepless night. I arrived at work and instantly realized I never dropped my daughter off at daycare. I felt horrible and to this day panic in the car thinking i forgot someone in the house or library or somewhere else.

christina February 8, 2010, 10:54 AM

It does not surprise me in the slightest that this happens. I still remember the bone-deep exhaustion and sleep deprivation that accompanied the arrival of my twin boys. I wouldn’t even drive for the first few weeks because I didn’t trust myself behind the wheel of a car. While I’ve (to date) not left the boys in the car by mistake, I have failed to buckle one or the other into their infant seat twice. It is the worst feeling in the world, so I have nothing but sympathy (and empathy) for anyone who has accidentally left a child in the car. Honestly, the feeling is punishment enough, in my opinion.

Gayle Herbert Robinson February 8, 2010, 10:55 AM

At first you think, it’s a crime for a mother to do that, especially if the child died in a hot car. But if you look at it through human and non-judgemental eyes you can see how it could happen to any of us. We should instead find ways to help busy mothers and grandmothers (raising grandchildren) lighten their load, or offer to run an errand or two for them especially if they have more than two children under the age of five. Lack of sleep, stress and other daily factors can cause memory lapses. We are our Sisters’ keepers. Lend a helping hand whenever possible.

mimsy February 8, 2010, 10:56 AM

Each case has to be evaluated individually. Was the parent drunk or on drugs when the baby was left in the car? A professor at UC Irvine left his baby in the car and the baby died. He wasn’t charged with any crime. Soon after, he and his wife had another baby with Down syndrome.

Anonymous February 8, 2010, 11:31 AM

I think that people who think this could never happen to them and say,’ I could never forget my child’ must think they are perfect. I feel bad for Jane being all over the press and other people saying mean things. It should be a learning experience for all of us. I would always leave my kids the car for a quick minute now I do not. I do not think anyone should be legally charged. No one is perfect not even those who say i would never forget my kids. Seriously GET A GRIP . Even great moms make mistakes. Bad moms may not leave leave there child alone there are doing others very dangerous things!!!

PlumbLucky February 8, 2010, 12:58 PM

I don’t think we should make a sweeping blanket statement about this issue, it should be a case-by-case basis.

Even if the child dies, the state of the parent (drunk, high, etc.) and the intent should be investigated. The woman mentioned in the story, Jane? Accident, and luckily, no lasting harm.

Now the woman in Detroit about ten years ago who purposefully left her two children in a car on a very steamy hot summer day while she went shopping and treated herself to beauty treatments? Charge her selfish self (the details of that were horrific - it was above 90, and we’re talking 2 or 3 hours here…)

Anonymous February 8, 2010, 3:34 PM

I never forgot my kid in the car.

Christina February 8, 2010, 9:28 PM

Congratulations, Anonymous. We all bow before your superior parenting skills. Seriously, was there a point you were trying to make there?

maeby February 9, 2010, 7:34 AM

this terrifies me also. I try to make it a habit to constantly look in the back to make sure there arent any babies in the car. Leaving your purse in the back is a really really good idea and one i think i will do from now on.
@anon, i struggle with that also. i’ll accidentally leave something in the house and have two toddlers strapped in, what to do?? i live in a safe neighborhood(farasiknow)but i still feel like someone might be looking out, judging me or calling the cops! i run in and out as fast as i can!

Granddad February 9, 2010, 7:57 AM

There is way too much pressure on new mothers these days. The extra income has not resulted in better living, just bigger mortgages.
I have retired early to care for my grandchildren, while my daughter and son-in-law are out working. This isn’t how it should be. The mother should be able to be with her children. Early childhood is only a few short precious years.

Irene February 9, 2010, 10:32 AM

I think child neglect is still a form of abuse and should be a crime. When you have children, you take on certain responsibilities. People need to be held responsible for their choices, as well as mistakes.

Rita February 9, 2010, 11:18 AM

Irene, it’s not a case of child neglect if a mother has too much on her mind and she forgets her baby is in the car. Hopefully she’ll realize before she gets to her destination. Other factors need to be weighed in though, if the mother was intoxicated or has been investigated by CPS before.

If it’s true neglect, like the woman who purposely left her 2 children in the car while she went shopping and had beauty treatments, those women need to be punished.

I don’t think anyone who commented with their own stories were saying “Oh well, I made a mistake but my baby was fine” They were owning up to their mistake and admitted responsibility.

Cheryl February 10, 2010, 9:48 AM

I have nothing but sympathy for these moms, except for the one getting beauty treatments. I remember being so sleep deprived that I drove past my own driveway, twice! to avoid leaving my babies in the car, I always put my purse in one of the carseats. If they are driving with me, I put my bag on the floor in front of them, so I have to open a rear door to get it.
I think that a one time mistake is just a mistake. Neglect is more a body of work.

Michelle March 27, 2010, 8:21 AM

I don’t care how much a mother has on her mind, her children should ALWAYS be number one. If you’re too “busy” to remember that you have your own child in the back seat of your car, you should have never had children. Period.

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