Washington Post Magazine: Fatal Distraction -- Kids, Cars and Hyperthermia

Todd Costello lost his son, Tyler, in 2002 after forgetting the 9-month-old in the back of his car in his office parking lot. Todd and his wife, Melody, talk about how they have coped with the grief and how their marriage has fared.
Gene Weingarten, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009; 12:00 PM

It's one of the most terrible mistakes a parent could ever make. So, how does anyone accidentally leave a baby to die in a hot parked car? You'd be surprised how often it happens: 10 to 20 times a year, parceled out through the spring, the summer and early fall.

Washington Post staff writer Gene Weingarten was online Monday, March 9, at Noon ET to discuss his Post Magazine cover story, "Fatal Distraction," and "hyperthermia," a phenomenon that hardly existed only two decades ago.


Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.

Hundreds of questions await, and I will try to answer as many as I can. Many of you say you found the article evenhanded and without emotional manipulation. I find this particularly heartening under the circumstances: This was the most difficult story I've ever worked on. Partly that is because of the emotional nature of the subject matter and because of the vulnerability of the people who trusted me with their lives. But mostly, it was difficult because of haw hard it was form me to remain open-minded and emotionally uninvolved.

Any writer who claims to be completely unbiased is lying either to you or to himself; we are humans, we have opinions and prejudices, we hold certain assumptions about life. The absolute best we can do -- and it is usually enough -- is to make an honest effort to prevent those opinions, prejudices and assumptions from hijacking our words. As it happens, I went into this story with an overwhelming empathy for the parents whose inattention led to the deaths of their children. I believed it could happen to anyone, and I believe that because it almost happened to me. Twenty-five years ago, I almost killed my daughter.

In the early 1980s I was living in Miami, working as an editor for the Miami Herald. I got to work by car, driving down Biscayne Boulevard, then hanging a left at the Herald building. This routine seldom varied; when it did, it was when I had morning daughter duty, meaning that instead of turning left, I turned right, got on a highway, and drove a few more miles to the daycare center.

One day I turned left, made another left, as customary, and pulled into the Miami Herald parking lot. As I searched for a space, from the back seat, Molly said something. She was almost three. Until that moment, I'd had no memory at all that she was in that car.

I can't recall if, like many of the parents in my article, I was particularly stressed that morning, or mentally lost in some problem from work. I know there was no distracting cellphone conversation, because cellphones hadn't been invented. What I retain of that moment is the indelible memory of staring slack-jawed at the little girl in the backseat, and feeling a powerful rush of physical nausea. This was Miami in the summer. Molly would not have survived fifteen minutes in that car.

I sat there breathing heavily, fighting for self-control. I probably forced a smile and said something cheerful and dad-like. And then, as though nothing at all had happened, I left the parking lot and headed for the highway. No harm done! Just the start of an ordinary day!

You may have a question. I'll answer it simply. No, something like this does not go away. It haunts. Six years after that day, I wrote a play. It was about a man who had who had accidentally caused grievous injury to someone else; there was a backstory, about a baby left to die in a car.

When the news broke last summer about the death of Chase Harrison, I knew I had to write this story, whether I really wanted to or not. Like actors, writers know that genuine emotion is a valuable asset to draw on, not one that you lightly discard. If this article seemed to be presented with more restraint than some of my other magazine cover stories, it is probably because this was the end result of a writer fighting for a sense of control.

One more thing, before we get to some of your questions. I did not tell my wife about that moment in the parking lot, not for years, not until half a year ago when I began working on this story and needed to explain why it was keeping me awake nights. And I didn't tell Molly about it until just a couple of months ago; oddly, I found that 25 years after the day no harm was done, I couldn't look her in the eye.


Before we begin (apologies to those readers unfamiliar with my chats -- the introductions are interminable), I want to publish two e-mails I received this weekend. I know who the writers are, but am not using their names at their requests.

I'm a loving grandmother and a Sunday school teacher. I've forgotten my cell phone many times, and once I forgot something infinitely more precious. Almost all of the holes in the swiss cheese had lined up -- exhaustion, over commitment, taking care of others, the break in the routine, the back-facing carseat, the sleeping child, the summer day. I was just about to fall asleep when my daughter called to ask where her son was. "At the babysitter's, why?" "No he's not. The babysitter just called me."

My grandson survived the two hours in the closed car, but only by the grace of God. I could have been any one of those parents in your story. I was charged with a felony and pled guilty to a misdemeanor. I try to focus on the mercy my family and I received rather than constantly imagining what our lives almost came to be.


Forty-six years ago, I took my young family on a vacation in the Sierras. I was the only adult with a small group of children, in the warm early afternoon, drowsily playing a card game. My 1 1/2 year old daughter wandered off, and, unnoticed by me, turned the corner of the hotel building and found the swimming pool. Unlike any other afternoon we had been there, no one else was around. She stepped off the edge of the pool into eternity. I missed her 4-5 minutes later.

I recall the warm sum, my daughetr's limp body, my wife screaming, while I was attempting to administer CPR. The sheriff/ambulance arrived 30 minutes later. I too, was offered sedatives by the hospital staff. I too, had to refuse them. I wanted to die right there and then, but I had a young son and wife. When we returned to the hotel, I went into the hotel kitchen and, alone, washed every dirty dish in there. I couldn't scream when I was administering the CPR. I have never screamed about this, much as I probably need to. Perhaps death by hyperthermia is worse than by drowining, but it is still death; something basically, fundamentally, irrevocably, permanent.

Okay, let's get to your questions.


Bowie, Md.: I noticed when reading your article that all the families discussed had both parents in the workforce, and they all seemed to revolve around day care or child care pick-ups of some kind. That I think is at the heart of the problem. We as a society now delegate the care of our children out to others and in the mornings as we rush out of the house, the children are not the focus of our day, but one of a myriad of "small" details we check-off in our rush to the most "important" focus of our day," our jobs. What is really sad about the Balfour case is that the babysitter, not a parent, was the first one to realize the child was missing. The fact is the babysitter had more involvement in the baby's weekday life than the mother had, so it makes sense the babysitter would notice the baby's absence. Fourty years ago, parents were not perfect, but at least, they didn't delegate the care of their children in such large numbers to non-family members, and the child's life wasn't filled with so much stress and hurrying. I often read criticism of the past, such as "this is not your grandmother's PTA" or "this is not your father's automobile," in praising ourselves; however, in this instance, it is unfortunate that we don't follow more our grandparents' method of child-care, "hands-on" care in the home. Why didn't Mr. Weingarten mention more about how this problem often results from having both parents in the workplace?

Gene Weingarten: Because Mr. Weingarten is prejudiced.

I don't mean to sound cavalier or dismissive. Yours is a reasonable question, but I believe it is based on an erroneous presumption: For many or most of us, daycare is not an option but a necessity. I am, in fact, prejudiced in favor of daycare -- the way it socializes children, they way it helps support and encourage economic equality in two-career households, and the way it can work splendidly to let loving parents provide loving homes.

I never intended this story to a condemnation of daycare; I think that argument is as spurious as saying the problem here, obviously, is cars. If there were no cars, no children would die this way. It's true, but beside the point.

Is it about simplifying our lives, and reducing stress? Probably. I just wouldn't make daycare the scapegoat.

Gene Weingarten: You know what it might be about? It might be about making sure that daycare centers ALWAYS call the parent if the child doesn't arrive one day. I'd like to hear from a daycare provider if he/she thinks this creates an excessive burden, because I don't see how it would.


Arlington, Va.: Just finished reading your article and it was terrific, and deeply unsettling. I don't think any of these folks should be prosecuted unless police find a pattern of neglect. That said, what bothered me the most was that photo of Lyn Balfour pregnant, combined with her "I have nothing to apologize for" attitude and her "I'm getting better about not doing too much at once" arrogance. The combination just made her seem so cavalier about the whole thing. As if leaving your baby to die in a hot car was like forgetting to return your library books on time. Oh well, accidents happen.

Of course they do. However, some part of me thinks, "Yes, this can happen to anyone. It could have happened to me. But it happened to YOU because you were so busy and so harried. And if something like this happens to you, that's life's way of saying you've got too much on your plate." So she's simplifying her life by having MORE kids? I know this sounds horribly judgmental of me, but the last thing she should have done was have more kids. Self-serving doesn't begin to cover her whole attitude.

Gene Weingarten: She and Jarrett both believe that having more children is what has allowed them to emotionally survive.

There is something else about Lyn Balfour that I hope came through: The face Lyn turns to the world is not entirely representative of what's inside her.


Severna Park, Md.: Dear Mr. Weingarten,

I have just finished reading your incredibly moving article in this morning's Washington Post. I am sitting here with a lump the size of an orange in my throat and a huge weight on my chest; I cannot, even in my worst nightmares, begin to imagine the insurmountable pain and anguish these poor parents and families have gone through. Your devastatingly vivid article made these people feel so real, so normal and above all so human; it seems to me that those who are so quick to judge, accuse and condemn completely lose sight of this fact. How many times have we all made slip ups of a similar nature, yet we are the lucky ones who get to live another day of sweet oblivion to the disasters we have unwittingly avoided? How obnoxiously smug and judgmental people can be.

Lyn Balfour is someone to be admired -- if you speak with her again, please let her know that she is one of the bravest, incredible people that I have heard of -- if there is a God, then he surely gave us this woman; her strength of character is an inspiration, her will to live and move forward are so impressive. I am certainly someone who would like Lyn the moment I met her, like her because of who she is, what she has lost and how she will live the rest of her life because of and in spite of that loss. Good luck to Lyn and all the other families in your article.

Yours sincerely,

Lisa Dunoyer (mother of four, many mistakes made!)

Gene Weingarten: Consider it said.


Chicago, Ill.: As a journalist, one of the things I hate having to do the most is approaching a family member about a close relative who has just died. How did you approach this? Did you find intermediaries, or did you talk with Lyn Balfour first, who then mentioned you to others? Did you have to give yourself a motivational speech to start the interview? I know from experience that interviewing a parent whose child has just died is a hard thing to do. I can't imagine having to interview someone whose child died because he forgot about the child.

Gene Weingarten: It was just awful. As you know, it helps that it is your job.

In these cases I found it helped to be vulnerable myself. I started the conversations by talking about myself a little, how I felt about the situation, how I honestly didn't know how to ask the questions my job required me to ask.

Gene Weingarten: See next post.


Danz, AK: How did you pitch this story to your subjects? What were those first cold calls like?

Gene Weingarten: Good question.

This was the most difficult reporting I've ever had to do; and yes, the initial contact was the most difficult part. For everyone. A typical moment was when I reached a dentist in Boca Raton, Fla. He is a very cordial man. When I told him why I was calling, there was a 10 second pause. Then he said, "I'm sorry, I am shaking and feeling cold and faint." He invited me to call back at a time when he could be better prepared.

I expected it was a polite brush-off, but it wasn't. Eventually, we talked for nearly an hour.

By the way, this dentist's email address includes the word SMILES. These people are just like us. These people ARE us.

Gene Weingarten: This man's story did not wind up in the article, but it was compelling, too. He wound up being sentenced to community service; he was grateful for the mercy shown to him, and for the extraordinary outpouring of support from his patients past and present.

One woman had written to the judge, recalling how the dentist had changed his office schedule to accommodate her son's needs-- he'd been battling cancer and needed to get certain treatments when he was not undergoing chemo. The son died; the woman's gratitude didn't.

The dentist's main message to me was that when a case is prosecuted, as his was, it does not allow the family an opportunity to grieve. They are busy trying to stay out of prison.


Arnold, Md.: Anyone who has not listened to the interview with the Costello family should absolutely do so. I don't cry easily, and I was sitting there sobbing.

Alot of marriages don't survive the death of a child, but most of those in your article seem to have done so. i think the key is what Mrs. Costello says, I know there was no way this was anything other than a tragic accident.

Everyone needs to remember that when dealing with these situations. Thank you for letting us know.

washingtonpost.com: Audio: Todd Costello

Gene Weingarten: I was so glad washingtonpost.com spoke with the Costellos.

I had more than 500 hours of interviews for this story; so much didn't make it into the final product. I'm really happy the Costellos got to be heard. Their story is moving; the way they stayed together is inspiring.

Every case has unforgettably terrible facts. The Costellos' 911 tape was notable for the fact that the police dispatcher, not the caller, was the first to say "My God."


Whoa: Gene, I'm speechless. I have to admit I couldn't read all of the article. I didn't want to have nightmares myself. This is the most un-funny article you've ever written. I can't imagine what it was like to immerse yourself in this subject. I hope your next assignment is like, totally funny.

Gene Weingarten: As it turns out, my next assignment might be about trying to find humor in excruciating pain.

I am doing this chat from a hospital room, six days after having had a double knee replacement. I'm on pain meds, and also in pain. It is hard staying focused.


Bethesda, Md.: These trials are a waste of time and money. No parent is ever going to be sent to jail for doing this, unless much more egregious circumstances were involved; nor should they be.

I'm curious as to if you came across any cases in which a parent was sentenced to jail and actually served time, as opposed to a suspended senence?

I also wonder if the standard should be different if a non-parent, such as a babysitter or other caregiver, was the responsible party. Did you come across any of these cases While they, too, would feel terrible guilt, I do not think it would be as bad as if they had killed their own child.

Gene Weingarten: The facts of my story were very specifically limited to cases like Balfour's and Harrison's: Where the parent had no additional negligence beyond simply forgetting. And yes, some of these parents go to prison, sometimes for a long time.

Studies covering ALL these cases -- there is one notable one by Wake Forest University professor Jennifer Collins -- have found prosecution and sentencing disparities in the punishment of these cases. Professional caregivers who accidentally leave a child to die in a vehicle are often treated more harshly than parents who do the same thing. (I suspect because the "suffered enough" theory doesn't apply.) Collins also found that mothers tend to be judged more harshly than fathers in sentencing, and that prejudice is shown against lower socioeconic groups.

My story didn't go there because I was writing about a very specific subset of cases -- a subset in which I saw no such disparities in prosecution.

From what I have seen, the major prison sentences are handed out and served when the parent knew very well that the child was in the car, or where the parent was abusing drugs or alcohol, leading to the death.


Washington, D.C.: Gene,

Did you interview the VA father whose child died back 7 or 8 years ago? This was a family of six or seven children, the mom was out of the country, and even though the father, and all of the other children, were at home, a toddler was left in the car. I seemed to remember that he was sentenced to one day a year in jail, on either the child's birthday or on the anniversary of her death.

This seemed like a more egregious case. He didn't go to work and leave the child in the car. He had the child in the car and left her there while they were at home. Apparently, he thought one of his teens was watching the child, but apparently no one was aware she still in the car.


washingtonpost.com: washingtonpost.com: Father Says Toddler was in Son's Care, (Post, July 3, 2002)

Gene Weingarten: It was not a family of six or seven children. It was a family of 14 children.

I know all about this case, and decided not to use it in my story because Mr. Kelly was not in the same category as the people I wrote about. There were prior incidents when children were lost track of; prior complaints; prior warnings and, I believe, at least one prior police incident, all involving a family that was so big that children were neglected.

I recall reading about Mr. Kelly's remorse; it was genuine and touching. But I wanted to write only about cases that were less morally ambiguous: Simple, one-time lapses of memory.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Gene,

There was a chat poll in which you asked about appropriate punishments for someone who left their baby in a hot car. I can't find it in the archives. Do you recall when that chat was or could you provide a link to it? I'm curious what we all had to say on the subject at the time. I think many people might have their opinions changed after reading your article.

washingtonpost.com: Chatological Humor, (Sept. 2, 2008)

Gene Weingarten: Re-doing this poll is a terrific idea. At the end of this chat, we will link to the poll again, and re-tabulate.


Anonymous: Did you read the comments posted on this story? They're also full of frothing vitriol.

One woman knows that it could never happen to her simply because her child is "ALWAYS" on her mind. We shouldn't feel sorry for these parents because society has taken compassion to an extreme. Charge them with murder and skin them alive. They're forming "child-killer cliques."

Is it simply impossible for some people to believe it COULD happen to them? Is the need to believe that you can prevent catastrophe so strong that it can't be overcome?

For years, whenever I heard or read about a rape, I would have to find something that the woman did wrong, or something I could do differently (she took the trash out at night, I'll NEVER take the trash out at night). But I know that this was driven by the knowledge that it COULD happen to me.

Gene Weingarten: That is exactly the point. These people have to be different from us. Otherwise, we're all vulnerable.


Who Decides?: Gene-- You mentioned in your article that there are those situations in which the parents have been negligent enough to deserve prosecution -- keeping the child in the car in lieu of day care, for example. While I agree that a tragic accident is not the same as a crime, I wonder how we propose to distinguish between the two without the involvement of the judicial system?

In a case in which a child has died, and particularly one in which there are other children in the home, is it really appropriate to let a single person look at the case and make the call? I expect most city and district attorneys are excellent people with good judgment, but they're trained as lawyers, not family counselors or investigators.

Look, I absolutely accept that Miles Harrison is a good man who is bearing a crushing weight of guilt and sorrow. I'd not want him to be convicted of anything. But imagine a similar situation, in which a spouse perhaps resented the presence of a stepchild or felt railroaded into an unwanted adoption. The initial facts of the case might be similar, and even the reaction of the responsible adult--remember Susan Smith's television appearances? Giving parents a get-out-of-jail-free card for hyperthermia deaths is problematic, not because it's not usually a tragic mistake, but because it may not always be that simple.

I know that's a scary point of view, but there are people who drown their children, burn them, lock them outside in 100 degree weather, and abandon them in Dumpsters. Some people are wicked. In a case where a child dies, I would prefer that the facts of the case be fully aired and investigated. The adversarial nature of a regular trial is rough on the parents. (Who needs to hear "She killed her baby!" while handling that sort of grief?) Perhaps a family-court style hearing would be more appropriate. Still, some official hearing and evaluation seems appropriate.

It sounded as if Andrew Culpepper wasn't doing any better without a trial than Miles Harrison did with one. I'm sure each person would react differently to this sort of tragedy, but I would almost prefer to have my actions examined and judged by an impartial observer. It might help to be acquitted of gross negligence--there might be some comfort, at 3 am on a sleepless night, to know that I'd been judged not to be criminal, or an unfit parent, however much I might argue with that conclusion.

Gene Weingarten: Interesting point. Might some people "prefer" to be prosecuted, or might it be better for their mental health?

I can tell you that none of the 13 I talked to for this story felt prosecution made sense. There are two main reasons:

1. It is phenomenally expensive. Basically, you start and $75,000 and move upward from there.

2. If you have to defend yourself to avoid prison, you cannot grieve for the death of your child. The whole grieving process is deferred at enormous emotional cost.

Gene Weingarten: Sorry, typo: You start AT $75,000....

Lyn Balfour's legal fees were almost double that. She was very ably represented by an extremely good lawyer, but extremely good lawyers do not come cheaply.


Arlington, Va.: Gene - thank you for the article. What should one do if you ever see a child in a car without an parent or adult present? Immediately break into the car? Call the cops/fire department?

Gene Weingarten: Call 911 unless the child is obviously in distress and immediate jeopardy. At that point, you smash your way in.


Clo, AK: There is no more vicious veil than that of the anonymity enabled by modern communication.

Gene Weingarten: Absolutely true.


Washington, D.C.: These people are rightly reviled because they failed so spectacularly at such a basic human function, protecting their own infants. It is bad enough that they choose to continue breathing, much less breeding.

Gene Weingarten: I knew there would be at least one of these.


Lawyer in D.C.: I am a lawyer. I don't practice criminal law, so I am probably missing something from my Criminal Law class several years ago. But there is more than just deterrence as a reason to punish a crime. In the case of these parents you highlighted, filing charges against them under a deterrent justification is obviously incorrect use of the legal system. For retribution it might make more sense. But it depends on if you think what the person did was morally wrong in that instance. "A person deserves punishment proportionate to the moral wrong committed." And the last reason to prosecute criminals is rehabilitation -- generally more the approach we take with juvenile criminals. And, again, I think not applicable here.

That being said, I think that it does show negligence to leave your child locked in the backseat of a sweltering car for hours. Is it gross negligence: "a conscious and voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care, which is likely to cause foreseeable grave injury or harm to persons, property, or both," or plain negligence: "a mere failure to exercise reasonable care?" Again, in these cases, probably negligence. BUT IT IS STILL NEGLIGENCE. People who leave their dogs in hot cars to die are charged with animal cruelty -- as they damn well should be. People who leave their babies in hot cars to die should be charged with manslaughter (to whatever lesser degree their state allows) -- as they damn well should be.

It seems that the argument is: because these people killed their children on accident, because they were terribly remorseful, and because it could happen to anyone (which I think is a horrible part of your argument -- perhaps it has happened to you and so you feel this way) that it should not be a crime. Many people travel with their children in the car, are stressed, are out of their routine, and yet these people are a small minority that leave their children to die. To look at it another way -- involuntary manslaughter (what the Purceville man was charged with) can be charged to drivers who are driving too fast, lose control, get in an accident and kill someone. We all drive too fast. We could all blow a tire while driving too fast and kill someone. And yet we would be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter because the initial wrong is against the law. Leaving your child unattended in a car is against the law.

The fact of the matter is -- a person guilty of simple negligence can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter. VA Code, 17-8-4.

And we have this rule because without it there is nothing outside of the parent's grief to show that the death was wrong. And nothing to show that society is against these actions. As I believe was the sentiment of one of the state's attorney's when he said he did not want that woman's record expunged. Usually in this society we would punish negligence through the pocket (a civil suit a la Ron Goldman's family). In these cases there is no retaliation for society against an unnecessary death. Had that woman's babysitter accidentally left the child in the backseat to broil, she would have wanted prosecution. Just because it is their children they are killing doesn't mean there should not be punishment -- even if it was an "accident" or "incident."

Gene Weingarten: All well put. The thing is, no one defends these cases by claiming there was no negligence. The parents all admit to dreadful negligence.

The key legal point tends to come down to this: Did the parent act negligently with "callous disregard for human life?" That is where these prosecutions tend to fail. How can it be callous disregard for life if the parent, indisputably, did not know there was a life in the car? "Should have known" is not enough, legally.


Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: A heartbreaking and beautifully written story. My comment focuses on the district attorneys who choose to prosecute these tortured parents. I see this choice as the product of the Republican stance of being tough on crime. Politicians and prosecutors fear being seen as soft on crime, no matter the circumstance. It seems as though they can never be tough enough. Like you, I believe that any parent, including me, is capable of such a horrible accident. Humans are universally fallible, but some Republicans believe self-righteously that only they are infallible. These prosecutors are afraid of the opinions of the least thoughtful members of the community. No conviction in court can match the self-inflicted punishment these parents experience for the rest of their lives. They deserve pity, not prosecution.

Gene Weingarten: It is politically more difficult for a prosecutor to not charge a crime in cases like these than it is for them to charge a crime. That's a simple fact: The expedient thing is to say, "Hey, let a jury sort it out." The prosecutor who decides on his or her own that no crime happened is going to bear the fury of an outraged public.

Having said that, I don't judge Mr. Chapman or Mr. Morrogh harshly here. I spoke to both of them, and I think that in their minds there was a question about whether simple negligence can sometimes be so great, and cause such harm, that it crosses into the realm of criminal behavior.


Lynn Balfour: You said she was the kind of person you immediately like or don't like. Did you like her?

Gene Weingarten: Lyn, if you're reading this, apologies.

I immediately disliked her. Then the more I got to know her -- we spent a lot of time together -- the more I came to like her, eventually, to like her a lot. I also respect her a lot.


Alexandria, Va.: I usually read your column for its humor and was surprised by the content chosen in "Fatal Distraction." I also was surprised to read later, in the same Washington Post Magazine, your "random fact" #10, which states you are a "devout atheist." I find these articles contradictory, as most of the people you featured in the first article state some faith in a higher power and forgiveness. They all seemed to believe children are not a right, they are a blessing.

washingtonpost.com: Below the Beltway, (March 8)

Gene Weingarten: There is nothing about being an atheist that implies you have contempt for people who believe in God. On some elemental level, I deeply envy people who believe in God.


Virginia: Sorry, Gene, I didn't read the story. I couldn't read the story. I had enough trouble dealing with the grief I felt in empathy after hearing such news stories after I started back to work. I was certain it could happen to me. I walked outside checking the car several times every day. I thought it would end as my children got older, and I had a second child. Here I am, pregnant with number three, and my stomach turns at the thought that this could happen.

My question is why would you write this story? Isn't there enough publicity about this when it happens. Why add to the guilt and shame of those involved and add to the painful empathetic response of parents everywhere?

Gene Weingarten: So it will happen less often.

So when it does happen, the poor, decent, terrible damaged people to whom it happens are not demonized by an ignorant public.


Annapolis, Md.: Dear Mr. Weingarten,

I thought the article was very, very good. However, I wonder why you included the comment from Ms. Fennel about the worst case she knew of (I don't want to repeat it here). It seemed like a cheap shot at the readers. Surely you can't think that fewer parents will leave their babies to die in hot cars if you let them know it's a bad way to die.

Gene Weingarten: This is a good question. I thought a long time before putting that line in, especially after a friend of mine said it nearly made her vomit.

That line was a stand-in for all the other lines that were not in this story: Details from trials, evidence from doctors, that make it clear just how dreadful the process of death can be in these cases. I felt I had to address it so as not to whitewash or eumphemize it -- this is about grotesque suffering -- but to address it only once, and at a slight remove: In the mouth of a sympathetic expert, summarizing one fact from a case involving other facts of similar horror.

I'm not sure I was right, but I didn't make the decision casually. I understood the power of those words.


Alexandria, Va.: It must have been quite an experience contacting these families for the first time. Can you tell us how you found them and how many of the families you contacted agreed to speak with you? Also, how do you think the parents experienced your interactions? Do you think it was helpful to them to talk with you?

Gene Weingarten: Some I found through Janette Fennell. Some I found through Meg Smith, the talented Washington Post researcher whose work is credited at the bottom of the story.

I tried to speak with 26 people. Half wound up talking to me at least a little, though some insisted on the interview being on background.

I think those who spoke on the record -- and I include the spouses -- are courageous people. There is nothing in this for them, nothng to be gained, except having their tragedy prevent another one. Would you have the courage to do it? I doubt I would.


Touching?: Gene Weingarten: I recall reading about Mr. Kelly's remorse; it was genuine and touching.

I didn't think so. He blamed his daughter's death on his minor son to try to keep himself out of jail. They should have thrown the book at him.

Gene Weingarten: I am referring to an interview from after his sentencing. Yes, his initial reaction was appalling.


Another reason to read print rather than online: My compliments to the photographers and designer of the print version of this story. Those of you who read it online missed out--the magazine devoted entire pages to the photos of the characters, so you can search their faces for all the emotion Gene describes. Smaller photos of the dead children, some in their car seats, are facing but apart from the photos of the surviving family members. The story would be haunting even in plain text, but the layout really added to the humanity of the characters and illustrated their loss.

Go buy a Sunday paper now if you haven't seen the print version. And then be a good citizen and subscribe.

Gene Weingarten: This is all true. J Porter (layout) and Evan Krisse (photos) did a beautiful job. As did the photographers Erika Larsen, Rebecca Drobis,and Brent Humphreys.

I advise that all families get TWO subscriptions to the print edition.


Westerville, Ohio: Your article quoted a psychologist explaining attempts to demonize these parents: "...We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters."

I feel this explanation is far too kind to these people, who appear to me to be just completely lacking in compassion. There are, unfortunately, so many of them represented by the comments, but I still believe a majority experience heartbreak for these parents. Did any of your research uncover an explanation for the fact that so many (like, thank God, Lyn Balfour's jury) ARE able to feel empathy?

Gene Weingarten: Actually, yes. But because of circumstances beyond my control, I am not near my notes and cannot recall enough details to be certain of my facts. That will not stop me from speaking irresponsibly from faulty memory, because what I kind of remember is provocative.

I spoke to a couple of neuroscientists who said said that the portion of the brain that allows us compassion and empathy is of the of the last to develop: It's why perfectly normal toddlers can do perfectly horrible things. It's not lack of conscience so much as it is lack of ability to understand how another person might feel.

So, am I saying that more compassionate people have more advanced and sophisticated brains? It's very oversimplified, but I think, yes, that this was the scientists' point.

I confess I am publishing this mostly to goad my good friend Marc Fisher, who wrote one of the least compassionate columns shortly after the Miles Harrison trial. (Liz, can we link to this?) Depending on one's viewpoint, this column was either refreshingly plainspoken or amusingly self-righteous. I don't want to go overboard here, and I have to underscore that my memory of the science behind this is incomplete and therefore useless, but yes, I'm willing to weigh the semi-evidence and reach the certain and fair conclusion that Marc has a more primitive brain than most of us.

washingtonpost.com: Why Was Father Who Killed Son in Car Acquitted?, (Raw Fisher, Dec. 19, 2008)


Baltimore: I've always felt nothing but sympathy for these situations, because I've always believed that something like this COULD happen to me.

Yesterday it very nearly did, although the circumstances were different--I was at a morning event with my daughter and my husband was home with our developmentally delayed son. When I got home, my husband was asleep and my son was gone. After frantic searching, I found him in a neighbor's yard, sitting naked on the hood of a car. Of all the things that could have happened under these circumstances, most of which I don't even like to imagine, this was by far the best outcome.

Oddly, while I feel sympathy for other parents, I feel nothing but anger towards my husband. Why couldn't he stay awake for two hours? I know, logically, that everything aligned to have this happen--he had worked all night and was exhausted, the therapist who was supposed to be there working with my son called in sick, my son figured out how to thwart the childproof locks on our fence, my husband forgot to engage the childproof locks on the door (since he didn't intent to be sleeping to begin with).

I can easily forgive my husband for this, but I don't know that I can easily trust him.

Gene Weingarten: One thing I learned from the parents in this story is that forgiveness comes if and only if you have looked into the transgressor's heart, and seen innocence.


Rockville, Md.: Not being immature, not being insensitive, and not being disrespectful, but, after calling several friends yesterday and today, you should know that many people -- including these posters here and several of their friends -- could not read past the first page or two of this story. Many people simply found it too depressing to read. It was a really confounding, unsettling and tragically depressing story. That's not a criticism, either--just a simple observation. Everyone hopes for the best for the families involved in these tragedies, of course. Our hearts go out to them.

Gene Weingarten: Several people have made this point. They just couldn't read the piece.


Burke, Va.: I'm sure that Lyn Balfour thinks she's doing good by taking the approach she does (sharing her story with unsuspecting strangers, defiantly absolving herself and others of any culpability whatsoever in their children's deaths), but I don't think her approach is likely to have the intended effect. I know a lot of it is just her personality, but comes across in your piece as pretty self-aggrandizing, particularly the suggestion that she might want to serve as a surrogate for the Harrison's (your story notably fails to include their views of such a possibility). She should consider herself very lucky that she was able to hire a lawyer smart enough not to put her on the stand. If I were lobbying for that cause, I don't think I'd want her as a spokesperson, and if I were in Miles Harrison's shoes, I don't think I'd want her telling me how to feel.

Gene Weingarten: This was a complicated story. Lyn Balfour is a complicated person. If that is how you read her, you are entitled to that opinion.

I will say one thing: I will not presume to speak for Lyn or the Harrisons about a very private matter between them. That is their business to discuss, when and if they want to. But I will say that I would not have ended my story the way I did if it were nothing more concrete behind it than a maybe promise. Lyn Balfour is no one's fool, and she is a serious person.


Los Angeles, Calif.: What are the names of some of the after-market reminder products you mentioned in the article? How can I get one?

Gene Weingarten: I asked Janette Fennell of KidsAndCars. Janette is one of the most knowledgeable and committed public-policy advicates I've ever met. She also has a fascinating personal backstory which didn't fit into the article, and which I will discuss if anyone asks about it. It involves crime, ski masks, and a child who lived.

Anyway, Janette says these are probably the three most popular products. The advice that follows them is from KidsAndCars, too.

Cars-N-Kids Car Seat Monitor

Baby Alert by ChildMinder

Halo Baby Seat Safety system by the Sisters of Invention (this may not be on the market quite yet.)

KidsAndCars.org offers these reminders that don't cost a penny and can certainly help to prevent these tragedies. If you employ the first three (all at the same time) your child should never be inadvertently left behind.

*** Put something you'll need like your cell phone, handbag, your employee badge, lunch or brief case, etc., on the floor board in the back seat. Get in the habit of always opening the back door of your vehicle every time you reach your destination to make sure no child has been left behind. This way it will become a habit. KidsAndCars.org calls this the “Look before you lock campaign”

***Keep a large teddy bear in the child's car seat when it‘s not occupied. When the child is placed in the seat, put the teddy bear up front in the passenger seat. It's a visual reminder that anytime the teddy bear is up front you know the child is in the back seat in a child safety seat.

***Make arrangements with your child‘s day care provider or babysitter that you will always call them if your child will not be there on a particular day as scheduled. Ask them to phone you if your child does not show up when expected. Many children‘s lives could have been saved with the telephone call from a concerned child care provider. Give child care providers all your telephone numbers, including that of an extra family member or friend, so they can always confirm the whereabouts of your child.

***If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. If they are hot or seem sick, get them out as quickly as possible. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.


What did Gene do after his wake-up call?: So, what did you do after your lucky wakeup call after you almost left your daughter in the car to broil to make sure it didn't happen again? Did you change anything about your routine? You didn't tell your wife --- you ought to have done so. She had a right to know. She could helped back you up in the future to make sure it didn't happen again.

I've noticed that people who frequently have crises of this type don't make any changes in their lives to keep it from happening again. Whereas those to home these things seldom happen would immediately take steps after a close call to put measures in place to keep it from happening.

You, Gene, just talked about YOU YOU YOU and YOUR guilt. If this had happened to me, I would be rattling off a list of action itmes that I implemented immediately to make sure it NEVER EVER happened again.

Gene Weingarten: It would never have happened again. I didn't need a Plan. I had an intense experience that altered my mindset every single time I got into a car with my children. I can tell you the basal ganglia got turned off. Every time. Put key in ignition. Check mirrors. Disable basal ganglia. Turn key in ignition. ...


Arlington, VA: Has anyone analyzed whether the emergence large SUVs and minivans with tinted windows is a contributing factor. It seems a lot easier to forgot your kids back there when your driving experience is more like a cockpit than the cars our parents drove?

Gene Weingarten: Tinted windows are a factor, yes.


Centreville, Va.: Regarding the comment by "Poughkeepsie, NY" who presumed that the prosecutors in these cases are all heartless Republicans, it should be noted that Mr. Morrogh - who chose to prosecute the Harrison case - is a Democrat and not a Republican.

Gene Weingarten: Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: I was genuinely moved by this article. I know I was one of those people who immediately assumes parents who forget their kids in the car are negligent monsters and I don't feel that way anymore, so I think the piece performed a very good service. However, as the father of a newborn, I wonder if there were any discussions about whether this article might create panic. Anytime there's a focus on potential killers of babies, it makes some people paranoid.

Gene Weingarten: Well, it would be constructive panic.

I wouldn't mind if people panicked about this.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for this article. It was emotional and thought provoking - everything feature writing should be.

I keep thinking back to your Joshua Bell article. Although the two articles were completely different subject matters, they both create similar reactions, don't you think? It's a mix between self-questioning and self-righteousness by the reader. In the Josh Bell article, so many people said: I would never have walked right by Joshua Bell! Yet, statistically speaking, they probably would have walked by just like 99 percent of the people that morning.

In the case of this article, so many readers say: I would never leave a child in a car! Yet, your article makes the point that, statistically speaking, it could be anyone. It has nothing to do with education, love, wealth, personality.

Did you intend for the articles to be similar in this way? Obviously, this one is so much more heartbreaking, but I think it's fascinating how self-righteous people can be.

washingtonpost.com: Pearls Before Breakfast, (Post Magazine, April 8, 2007)

Gene Weingarten: I confess I had not seen any connection between these two articles, but the one you raise has merit.


Annapolis, Md.: How long did you work on the story?

Gene Weingarten: I started working on it the day after Chase Harrison died. It was July 2008.


Jerk, and I mean that in a good way: I held it together until Lyn's 911 tape, and then I just lost it.

I put off having kids for TWO YEARS because I once left for work early to take my dog to the vet, and then arrived at work pleased that I was early.

It was a bitterly cold day. I only realized what had happened when I remembered I'd left a soda in the car, and I went back to get it before it exploded. I remembered my soda, but not my dog! My pet who had slept on my bed for a decade and been at times my only friend.

Now that I have a baby, I know the likelihood is ever greater that I'll forget him, because now I never sleep.

Thinking about this lady makes me feel like I'm standing on the edge of an abyss. That would be your fault for painting it so vividly. Jerk. Well done.

Gene Weingarten: I think we are all standing on the edge of that abyss.


I'll bite.: What is Janette Fennell's back story?

Gene Weingarten: I was hoping someone would.

She and her husband were the victims of a push-in home invasion. As the garage door slowly closed, armed men rolled in under it.

They ordered Janette and her husband into the trunk of their car, drove to an ATM, had them pillage the ATM.

Then they locked them back in the trunk and left them to die. They almost did, because there were no trunk release levers on the inside of trunks back then.

They managed to claw their way out. And Fennell had a mission. The car manufacturers fought her over a device that would have cost something like ten cents per car -- eventually she won, which is why all cars have an inside trunk release.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a federal prosecutor. I can't imagine any DA anywhere bringing charges in these horrible incidents absent some evidence of prior neglect, or drug/alcohol abuse, or some other "extra" factor.

Gene Weingarten: Well, now you can imagine it.


Silver Spring, MD: Marc Fisher: And the fact is that some people are cut out to be parents and some people are capable of forgetting that their little child, their defenseless charge whom they must protect like no one else in the world will, even exists.

For a journalist, Marc Fisher doesn't seem to have a very strong grip on the fact/opinion distinction.

Gene Weingarten: Well, wait.

This was a column. He was entitled to say this. He was WRONG, but entitled.

The syntax sucks, though. Marc would probably like to have that line back for a little tinkering.


Danvers, Mass.: I wonder if some of the particularly cruel comments are made by people who have difficulty empathizing. I have an eight-month-old son and I can only begin to imagine the lifetime of pain and regret such a mistake would make. The comments are a reminder that some of those kids who were cruel in third grade never become nicer.

Also, the purpose of prosecutions include: justice, punishment and prevention. Prosecuting these parents does none of the above.

Gene Weingarten: I think some would argue it promotes justice. I do not agree.


Baltimore, Md.: What about this idea for a preventative measure: (1) wear a wrist-watch that has an alarm feature, (2) every time you put your child in the car seat, set the alarm for 15 minutes after you expect to take him out of the car, (3) if you ever forget the child, the alarm should sound and notify you of your mistake. If you really want to make this work, use two alarm clocks -- a wrist watch alarm and a small travel alarm-clock that you carry in your pocket. Then the failure of one of the alarm clocks is not a fatal event. I use this technique when I put my dog outside in a fenced yard on a hot day. I don't want to ever forget that the dog is out there.

Gene Weingarten: I think there are two problems with this. The first is that there is a LOT of stuff you have to remember to do. The second is that -- I know this will sound odd -- some parents would just turn off the alarm, convinced they had delivered the child to daycare. I talked to 13 parents who had lived through this: Five of them told me they had formed a very specific, detailed memory of having dropped off the child.

The father in Chattanooga who is mentioned in the story: He essentially HAD that alarm. His car motion detector went off. He just shut it down and went back to work.

This is very strange mental territory we enter here.


Falls Church, Va.: I know you meant well with this story, but are you concerned that it amounts to, well, horror-movie freak appeal? Torture porn? Is feeling horror and pity for these people different from feeling horror and pity for Cary Elwes trying to cut off his own foot to save his family in "Saw"?

(Surely, at least, your paragraph about the calliope and the car alarm falls into this category).

Basically, what is the purpose of your story beyond this sort of appeal? Surely it can't be necessary to write this story to warn people not to forget their own babies in the car; this story can't prevent inadvertent forgetfulness.

Gene Weingarten:

I don't know how to answer this.


Gene Weingarten: Okay, I have to bring this to a slightly early close here; feeling a little weak. Thank you all so much for participating, and as soon as I sign off here, we're going to republish that poll from six months ago, for you to take again.

For regular Chatological Humor folks: No chat tomorrow. I hope to be back in the saddle, tho a hurtin' cowpoke, next week.


washingtonpost.com: Poll: MEN | WOMEN


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