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When Child Dies in Hot Car, Jail Rare

Safety experts say most fatalities occur when an adult forgets and leaves youngster in a vehicle. Police want UC Irvine professor to be charged.

August 12, 2003|Christine Hanley and Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writers

It happens about 30 times a year around the country: A parent or baby-sitter leaves a child in a hot car, with fatal results.

As in the case of UC Irvine professor Mark J. Warschauer, who police say left his 10-month-old son in his car after driving to work Friday, absentmindedness is the leading reason, child safety experts say. But unless substance abuse or misbehavior is a factor, parents are rarely sent to jail because prosectors recognize they will have a lifetime of punishment.

"Usually, as you can imagine, the worst penalty is already being paid: being the cause of your child's death," said Heather Paul, executive director of the National Safe Kids Campaign. "And I think courts and judges take that into consideration. There is no worse penalty than this."

Paul and other child-safety advocates say punishing parents with jail time would not be productive. A better way to prevent such tragedies, they say, is through public-awareness campaigns. Soon, technology may offer help in the form of devices that would sound alarms when children are left behind.

Warschauer, an associate professor and vice chairman of the university's Department of Education, left his son, Michael, in a locked car for more than three hours in a campus parking lot Friday, apparently forgetting he had not dropped him off as usual at the university's day-care center, authorities said.

The 49-year-old professor did not realize his mistake until after lunch, when he saw a commotion around his car, authorities said. Campus police officers smashed a rear window and removed the baby after a passerby discovered him inside the car.

Irvine police officials said Monday they plan to ask the Orange County district attorney's office to file charges against Warschauer. The counts could range from child endangerment to involuntary manslaughter, depending on the evidence, including autopsy results.

"We'd be hard-pressed not to do that because even if something is an accident, if someone dies, there's possible criminality involved," said Lt. Jeff Love, police spokesman.

The district attorney's office did not return phone calls seeking comment on the issue.

Laura Petersen, cofounder of 4 R Kids Sake, a Corona group founded to protect children from car injuries, said that of 28 deaths that have occurred in the United States this year, charges have so far been filed in eight cases. Five involved parents, two were day-care workers and one was a foster parent.

A sampling of other cases shows that prosecutors will aggressively go after parents or baby-sitters who show negligence.

Experts said that authorities tend to seek harsher penalties against caregivers who are not related to the children.

In Los Angeles County last month, Roxanne Rodrigo was sentenced to 10 years in prison because her 4-month-old son died after being locked in the car for seven hours. Rodrigo was under the influence of methamphetamine, authorities say.

Last year, a woman in Simi Valley was sentenced to a year in jail after leaving her two young sons in a minivan, where they died. Marlene Heath told police she drank a bottle of wine and fell asleep.

But most parents or caregivers simply forget that their children are in the vehicles, say child-safety advocates. In many cases, the victims are sleeping babies who make no noise.

Ignorance is the next leading cause of blame. In these cases, caregivers may leave a child in a car, for example, to fill out a job application or run in to pick up a prescription. These offenders are unaware of how quickly the temperature can rise in a car, or that a baby's body heat can rise three times as fast as an adult's.

California is one of 11 states where it is illegal to leave children alone in a car. A caregiver who leaves a child under 6 unattended by someone at least 12 years old can be fined $100.

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