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Group Puts Focus on Children Left in Vehicles

Safety: Family of infant who perished in heat starts 4 R Kids Sake to increase awareness and push for new legislation.

July 06, 2001|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scenario has become tragically familiar for Laura Petersen: A child. A locked car. A hot day.

"Unfortunately, [mom or dad] leaving a child in a car has become an accepted practice," said Petersen, whose 6-month-old granddaughter, Kaitlyn Russell, died last year after a baby-sitter left her unattended in a van near Lake Mathews in Riverside County.

"We go shopping, we go to the store, the cleaners, we take the kids along and end up leaving them in the car," Petersen said.

Since Kaitlyn's death, Petersen and daughter Tammy Russell, the baby's mother, have been on a mission. They founded 4 R Kids Sake, a private, nonprofit group with a goal of educating and creating awareness about leaving children in vehicles.

Nationwide, there were 29 such deaths in 1999 and 54 last year, according to Janette E. Fennell, co-founder of Kids 'N Cars, a San Francisco-based nonprofit national organization.

"I'm sure there are more deaths, but the problem is there is no tracking," she said. There is no required reporting by law enforcement or other government agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the number of times unattended children have been found in vehicles.

In Southern California, there have been three incidents involving children left in vehicles in the last 10 days. Two of the children died.

Police in Northridge saved two children left in a van while their mother shopped, but a 3-year-old Orange County girl died after being left in a sport-utility vehicle by a Rialto foster mother. The third incident involved a 22-month-old girl who died in the family van in Desert Hot Springs on Sunday.

This week, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad sponsored a meeting attended by Petersen, who is executive director of the Orange County Dental Society; Petersen's husband, Ron, a painting contractor with an office in Orange; and several county officials from health and social services.

"My heart just goes out to these victims and I want to get involved because these deaths are preventable," Coad said.

As a result of the meeting, 4 R Kids Sake may seek funding from a Proposition 10 program geared to help children 5 and younger. In addition, Coad, a mother of seven, plans to make child safety part of her "pro-family" campaign.

Thus far, 4 R Kids Sake has gotten printing donated for 60,000 fliers and 40,000 brochures, but the family has used about $10,000 of its own funds, Petersen said.

The organization also has produced license-plate frames and bumper stickers that include the phrase, "Never Leave a Child Unattended in a Car," and has started a Web site: www.4rkidssake.org.

The organization started as a promise Kaitlyn's mother made while the family was in the emergency room.

"My daughter made a promise to Kaitlyn that day that she would do anything possible to prevent another child's death," Petersen said. "It was so emotional, especially for me, to hear this from my daughter that we had to do something."

The infant died Aug. 15 after Sue Ann Calderon, 36, who had been baby-sitting, left her for at least two hours in a van in which the temperature reached 130 degrees.

Calderon's attorney has argued that it was a tragedy but not a crime. His client forgot the infant was in the van, he said; prosecutors contend that does not absolve Calderon of responsibility in the child's death.

Calderon has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other related charges. She is free on $25,000 bail but is expected to appear in court Aug. 6, according to a spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney's office.

Part of the 4 R Kids Sake campaign includes legislation that would aid police when children are locked in vehicles on a hot day. State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) is sponsoring the "Unattended Child in Motor Vehicle Safety Act," which, if it becomes law, will be known as "Kaitlyn's Law" in memory of Russell's daughter.

The bill would fine caregivers $100 for leaving a child younger than 6 without supervision by a person 12 or older. Sixty percent of the fine would be used for community education programs on the dangers of leaving children unattended.

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