Casey Anthony and Karen Murphy: Two children dead, two moms charged with murder

Petula Dvorak
Columnist July 7, 2011

Not a great week for moms, eh?

First we had the jaw-dropping, not-guilty verdict in the Casey Anthony trial in Florida, where the world got to see photos of a mom mourning with the aid of a red plastic cup, strumpety outfits and lots of buff guys (and girls) while her 2-year-old’s body was decomposing.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

And then we heard about the murder and child neglect charges against a busy Virginia veterinarian and mother of three this week who forgot that her toddler was in the back seat of a car when she went to work, then drove home at the end of the day with the little boy’s corpse still strapped in.

Two moms. Two felony charges. Worlds apart.

We’re fascinated by one because we can’t relate and by the other because we so totally can.

Moms have a monster load to carry. There’s the nurturing, the healing, the caretaking, the educating, the organic quinoa we’re supposed to be cooking for our kids, the music they should hear in vitro and the music they shouldn’t have on their iPods.

And don’t forget the women we should be, too. Get your groove back, Stroller Stride that baby fat away, keep your career on track, your closets organized, your partner happy. And don’t forget to tend to your roots! (I’m talking hair, Casey. Not bamboo.)

No wonder the Bad Mommy confessional culture is on fire, with moms blogging their shortcomings to the world and being the first to say: “You got me, I’m not perfect, I’m a screw-up. Ha-ha.”

But the spotlight on moms this week has not a hint of ha-ha in it.

Let me dispatch with the Anthony trial quickly, because it’s a heinous affair and there’s not much left to say that hasn’t been said.

It captivated us because of Casey’s actions: borrowing a shovel to allegedly dig up bamboo roots when her child went missing, partying right after her child died and providing the tantalizing combination of sexy photos, cute kid and dysfunctional family.

But Karen Murphy reacted a bit differently to the horror of her child’s death. Neighbors said they could hear her screams throughout the Bristow neighborhood when she discovered Ryan’s body in the back of the car.

She is in a living hell right now.

It’s so easy to bash her, even for those of us who can relate to blanking on something important: your dad’s birthday, a work deadline, an anniversary. But your kid?

The deaths of children forgotten in their very safe, back-seat cocoons are a modern epidemic. It’s an awful combination of busy schedules, a commuting culture, brains overloaded with responsibilities and the ironic, societal sea change that has trained an entire generation of parents to put their kids in the back seat, often facing away from their parents.

Out of sight, out of mind. Tragically, sometimes.

Last year was the worst ever, with 48 kids dead in overheated cars nationwide. This year isn’t looking good, with 18 dead already. We’re almost on pace to match last year’s record.

A keeper of these grim statistics is Janette Fennell, who founded and runs KidsandCars.org, an advocacy group. She is the nation’s crusader for this particular issue, which was explored in excruciating and compelling detail in Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Post magazine story in 2009.

Each time a toddler dies, there is an outpouring of vitriol aimed at working parents and day care.

In Murphy’s case, it’s made worse by the fact that she had the same huge lapse in January, when she left Ryan in the car for 30 minutes before realizing her mistake. That’s part of what prompted Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert to charge Murphy with murder, he said.

If she is convicted, Murphy could face up to 40 years in jail.

Yes, it is awful that someone could be this distracted. People do stupid, ditzy, scatterbrained things that are not filled with evil intent but can have lethal results.

Rant all you want, but we help such screw-ups all the time — cars that beep when you drift into another lane, bumps on roads to jolt sleepy drivers, irons that automatically shut off before burning down the house. And we have such technology to help save dozens of kids every year.

We did it with airbags. After at least 180 children died from their force, standards were established to prevent such accidents, Fennell said.

In the past 20 years, about 600 children have died of heat stroke in a car. Some were left in a hot car by neglectful parents, but others were truly forgotten.

There are aftermarket devices that parents can buy, little beepers and reminders, labels to put on your purse after you’ve buckled your child into a car seat.

But these things don’t sell. Why? No parent believes he or she could make such a mistake. People don’t want to think they could be so distracted to forget the living, breathing center of their lives in the back seat.

And yet, hundreds of families thought they were better than that.

How about patent #7,250,869? It’s for a sensor that goes beneath a car seat, activating as soon as a child is strapped in and beeping when the engine is off but the kid’s still in the seat. Both parents and passersby would be alerted that there’s a kid left inside.

Any takers? It already has a Web site.

And the rights to the patent are for sale.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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