WASHINGTON – Twenty children nationwide have died since May after being left alone in hot cars, and experts say adults have to be especially vigilant as temperatures continue to soar.
On July 5, an 8-month-old boy died after his mother forgot he was in the backseat while she went to work in Arlington County on an especially muggy Friday afternoon. The outside temperature was about 90 degrees. The infant’s body temperature was 108 degrees when he was pronounced dead at Alexandria Inova Hospital.
Zoraida Magali Conde Hernandez, 32, was charged with felony child neglect.
On the same day, a toddler died in Baltimore County under similar circumstances. Officers say a relative was supposed to take the 16-month-old to a Head Start center. Police say the relative instead drove to their home in Baltimore, went inside and fell asleep for four hours.
When the relative went back to the center, he was told the child was never dropped off. The relative ran back to his truck and found the child in the vehicle, officials say.
She was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger says his office is reviewing evidence. No charges have yet been filed.
And in May, a pair of siblings died from heatstroke in Henrico, Va. Their mother has been charged with two counts of felony child neglect.
Laws that ban leaving a minor unattended in a car are varied throughout the U.S. If a state or local jurisdiction does not have specific language prohibiting the practice, it usually falls under the wide umbrella of child neglect.
Maryland state law specifically bans leaving a child under the age of 8 unattended in any “dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle.” An adult found guilty of violating this law faces either misdemeanor charges, and a “fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment not exceeding 30 days, or both.”
In more egregious instances, an adult could face up to five years in prison if convicted of child neglect, which is considered a felony, says Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office.
When it comes to charging adults, Korionoff says that each situation is different. Police and prosecutors must look at the credibility of the adult, and also their intent. A child that was left unattended for 20 minutes while their parent ran into the supermarket might mean a lesser charge compared to a child that died after being left alone for several hours.
One consideration might be if “there [is] some kind of value to bringing a case towards [the responsible adult] in the sense of making it a deterrent for future acts,” Korionoff says.
Prosecutors “also look at culpability and remorse.”
In Virginia, child neglect is considered a felony and is punishable by prison time. Whether an adult is prosecuted in court is determined on a case-by-case basis.
An abused or neglected child means any minor “whose parents or other person responsible for his care creates or inflicts, threatens to create or inflict, or allows to be created or inflicted upon such child a physical or mental injury by other than accidental means, or creates a substantial risk of death, disfigurement or impairment of bodily or mental functions,” according to state law.
“What people need to understand is that a child’s body temperature rises faster than an adult’s,” says Officer Bud Walker from the Fairfax County Police Department. “A period of time in a car that you think would be OK for a grown-up could be way too long for a child.”
Though no children have died this year from vehicular heatstroke in Fairfax, Walker says the county is making an effort to raise awareness and prevent any fatalities.
One Virginia woman has gone on a crusade to educate people about the dangers of leaving children unaccompanied in cars after her own 9-month-old died in 2007.
A jury acquitted Lyn Balfour of involuntary manslaughter, and she hopes her story will serve as a cautionary tale.
“I was one of those parents that had heard stories about how this is possible and I sat there and said to myself, ‘There’s no way I could forget my child,'” Balfour told WTOP earlier this week. “Then it happened to me.”
To avoid potentially leaving a child in a car, Walker suggests putting a stuffed animal in the passenger seat to remind adults someone could be in the back. Also, use drive-through windows instead of parking and getting out of the vehicle whenever possible.
“It may be additional effort, but this is a human being that we’re talking about,” he says.
Other heat-related deaths in 2013 have been reported in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Illinois, Idaho, Oklahoma, Minnesota, California, Texas, North Carolina and Missouri, according to the Department of Geosciences.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.Follow @WTOP on Twitter.