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Denise Balkissoon (Kevin Gonsalves)
Denise Balkissoon (Kevin Gonsalves)

Denise Balkissoon

When kids die in the back seat: Blame, sympathy or remedies? Add to ...

Every year, about four Canadian children die in overheated cars. This summer, two have already died, in the same horrible week. In Milton, Ont., two-year-old Maximus Huyskens was left in a red Chevrolet Cruze on June 26, when temperatures reached 31 C. Four days later in Edmonton, three-year-old Tsitsi Chitikedza succumbed to heat exposure in an SUV as the thermometer hit a stifling 35 C. Inside a closed vehicle, the temperature can rise another 15 degrees within 20 minutes. Severe heatstroke can be fatal within minutes for a child, and both Maximus and Tsitsi were left, forgotten or ignored, for hours.

After Maximus and Tsitsi died, I re-read Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fatal Distraction, a 2009 article that is the defining analysis of children, cars and death by hyperthermia, the formal name for extreme internal temperature elevation.

In attempting to explain how otherwise reasonable parents might forget that they have a child in their parked car, Mr. Weingarten interviews a memory expert, who explains the interplay between the short-term and the long-term, the responsive and the “autopilot” sections of our brains, and how they’re affected by stress, lack of sleep, distraction, or minute changes in routine. He also outlines the “Swiss Cheese model” of catastrophe – the way in which individually small weaknesses line up to help make the unthinkable real. Most hauntingly, Mr. Weingarten introduces a number of parents who left their children in their cars and came back to find a tiny corpse.

Observers of these tragedies tend to fall into two camps. The first couches its horror in a search for retribution, blaming the caregiver for carelessness or callousness. Closure, in this view, should come from the criminal justice system, regardless of a caregiver’s intent towards a helpless being. The second responds with cautious condolence, underpinned by dread that we’re all too close to such unchangeable, unbearable accidents. After reading Mr. Weingarten’s heart-rending descriptions of catatonic parents consumed with suicidal suffering, my view is that court proceedings don’t serve much purpose after a genuine accident.

Of course, police must investigate each case thoroughly. Tsitsi's caregivers have not formally been accused of purposeful wrongdoing. But the same day the toddler died, another mother in the same city was charged with willfully causing a child to be in need of intervention. Thankfully, her three children survived their stint in a car in a mall parking lot, but she had a history of neglect.

Maximus’s grandmother has also been charged, with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life; eventually, a judge may decide that her actions were malicious, or at least intended, and deserving of punishment – or not. Sometimes it’s obvious where to lay blame, sometimes it seems like there could be an answer, and sometimes fate is just truly senseless.

This past week, I imagined a car seat equipped with a scale that chimes every half hour when there’s a precious little life inside, so driving parents don’t forget they have someone in the back. I can’t find anything like it for sale, but it turns out it’s not a lack of ideas that’s the problem. In 2001, General Motors launched a radar sensor that worked as a motion detector and thermometer inside its cars. A demonstration car set off an alarm when a tiny baby stirred in its car seat, as well as when a tired old dog slumped a little under the passenger-side dashboard.

“It looked like the future to us,” says Raynald Marchand of the Canada Safety Council, who was there. But the device never made it to market: GM tells me the sensor never became 100 per cent reliable, despite years of upgrades and improvements. “I have a feeling their lawyers got involved – if it failed, they could be sued,” says Mr. Marchand. “Trying to do good things is difficult.”

Mr. Marchand is left giving parents tips to jog their short-term memories: place a toy on the passenger seat as a visual reminder the child is in the car; ask babysitters to call without fail if you don’t make the daycare drop-off. Such tiny, imperfect solutions to aim at preventing such huge, overwhelming grief.

Denise Balkissoon is a Toronto writer and co-editor of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about ethnic and cultural pluralism in the Greater Toronto Area. She is on Twitter @balkissoon.


Correction: The spelling of Tsitsi Chitikedza was corrected on July 12

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