Hemelt: Parents must take responsibility for children in cars

Published 11:45 pm Friday, July 11, 2014

Who’s at fault when a baby or young child is left in a hot vehicle unattended for hours, eventually passing away in what has to be torturous conditions?

Similar questions and follow-up conversations have been asked and discussed across the country since news of 22-month-old Cooper Harris’ death in Georgia June 18. He was fastened into a child’s seat in his father’s vehicle while his dad spent the day in an air-conditioned office.

As you undoubtedly heard already, Cooper’s father, Justin Ross Harris, is charged with murder and child cruelty.

He has maintained his innocence, pleading not guilty.

Cooper’s case continues to pull on our national attention span because of the many sordid details released, including Justin Ross Harris’ Internet search history on children being left in vehicles and what police say were questionable text messaging actions on the day his son died.

Those details mask what have become some fairly polarizing issues in this country, especially among parents.

Should a seemingly mindful and loving parent be charged with a crime if they leave a child in a car, causing death?

Should vehicle manufacturers be required to include safety measures designed to prevent such measures?

Should the government be tasked with providing a uniform response to such situations?

As the parent of a 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, these are questions that have captured by attention in the last three weeks, leading to numerous discussions with my wife and parents.

Most cars today, including my 2007 Ford, alert a driver with an annoying buzz when either the driver or front passenger is not wearing a seat belt. Many employ similar measures for times when the key is left in the ignition.

It is also being required by 2018 that all new cars have rear-visibility technology.

If similar measures are in place for seat belts and reverse safety, proponents suggest, surely more can be done to protect backseat children from deadly mistakes.

At least 44 children died in 2013 from heatstroke caused by being left in cars in the United States, according to national nonprofit organization KidsAndCars.org.

At least 13 children have died this year for the same reason. Over the past decade, the group figures, there have been at least 388 children who have died of vehicular heatstroke.

Considering something like this happens three to four times a month nationally, it’s interesting that it took Cooper Harris’ death and his parent’s questionable actions beforehand to bring the discussion to national prominence.

When I worked for The Daily Iberian in New Iberia, a local district attorney faced a similar case with a mother who mistakenly left her child in the car, with the youth ultimately dying.

No charges were filed in that case.

In other cases, parents have faced negligent homicide and second-degree murder charges, ultimately having their fates left in the hands of juries.

The results of these cases vary wildly based on the will of district attorneys and juries around the country.

Although random, I believe that is the best way to handle these situations. Local law enforcement and district attorneys should thoroughly investigate each case, determine if a history of criminal misdeeds or negligence is in place and act accordingly.

I’m not sure where the line exists that takes this from a tragic mistake that will haunt most parents for eternity and into the realm of a criminal act deserving of punishment, and I pray I’m never forced to make that call.

With parenthood comes responsibility. When, through mistakes of our own, we endanger the lives of our children, we should be held accountable.

There is no greater responsibility.

Stephen Hemelt is general manager and editor of L’Observateur. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com