By Hayley M. Cook
WILLIAMSON – The recent news of a Georgia toddler’s death inside his father’s hot vehicle has caused a storm of responses on social media, with many people wondering how they can help if they see a child in a similar situation in Mingo County.
Justin Ross Harris, of Marietta, Georgia, told police he was supposed to drive his son Cooper to day care the morning of June 18, but forgot and drove to work without realizing that his son was in the back seat. 22-month-old Cooper was left for seven hours, strapped in his car seat in an overheated and locked vehicle, where he eventually died due to vehicular stroke.
Now Harris and his wife Leanna are involved in a highly publicized case, which has caused many to wonder why this type of crime is so common.
According to the Department of Earth and Climate Sciences at San Francisco State University, since 1998, more than 600 children have died in the United States from hyperthermia (heat stroke) after being left inside unattended vehicles.
Today a child dies from vehicular heat stroke every 10 days, and 73 percent of all vehicular stroke deaths occur in children under the age of 2.
When asked on Facebook about the death of Cooper Harris and subsequent arrest of his father, many mothers from West Virginia and Kentucky showed disgust and said they couldn’t even bear to read articles about the 22-month-old’s death without thinking of their own children.
“I cried when it showed updates that the baby tried to claw himself to get out of his car seat,” said Kaci Matney, mother of 19-month-old daughter Jade. “I’m just in shock and disgusted right now.”
“I just picture my baby,” said Sarah Hoffman, mother of 6-month-old daughter Serena. “I can’t bear the thought of her or any other baby suffering like that.”
”This breaks my heart and I couldn’t imagine the suffering this poor baby went through,” said Amy Michelle Lester, mother of 19-month-old son Bentley.
When asked about the appropriate way to handle finding an unattended toddler in a locked car, most of the mothers said they would take action immediately.
Hoffman said she would assess the situation before taking action.
“If the baby looked fine and happy, I’d call the cops and tell a bystander to run in the store and page the parents,” Hoffman said. “I would stay beside the window, keeping watch on the child until someone got there. If the child was in distress, I would bust whichever window is furthest from the child as to not get glass on the baby, and I would get the kid out myself. Then I would call the police or yell for someone else to call 911 while I did it.”
In only 10 minutes, the temperature of a car can increase by 19 degrees Fahrenheit, while after an hour a car’s temperature can increase by more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
It can take as little as 15 minutes in an overheated car for a child to suffer life-threatening brain or kidney injuries. When body temperatures reach 104 degrees, internal organs shut down. When they reach 107 degrees, children can die.
Sixteen children have died due to vehicular stroke so far in 2014.
Only 20 states have a law that specifically addresses leaving a child unattended in a locked vehicle, and West Virginia is not one of those states.
While Kentucky has a law (passed in 2010) that protects children under the age of 8 in such a situation, West Virginia does not have a specific law pertaining to leaving unattended children in a locked vehicle.
Many parents on Facebook shared they were unaware and shocked that West Virginia has no laws specifically related to this issue, and would like to see that change.
“Whoever makes laws in West Virginia should get on that,” Hoffman said. “But I don’t care if I get arrested for busting a window or not, I’m not going to let a baby sit there and scratch their face in misery. I’ll go to jail if I have to.”
“As far as West Virginia having no laws, I think that will change soon after all of this,” Lester said. “At least I hope so. I, like Sarah (Hoffman), would save a child regardless of laws.”
State police Sgt. Lively of the Williamson detachment, spoke to the Williamson Daily News and made it clear that, although there is no specific law regarding the matter, child neglect is taken seriously in Mingo County and such a situation would be handled promptly.
“There’s no particular legislation for that,” Lively said. “However, that being said, we do have laws such as child neglect with a risk of injury. If you leave your child in a vehicle in the middle of summer with the windows rolled up for an hour, you most likely fit the criteria of child neglect with risk of injury.
“If you leave your child in the car during winter and it is 10 degrees outside, you probably fit the criteria. If you leave a child in the vehicle with the A/C on and run in the post office for 10 seconds, then that’s where it can get tricky,” the trooper said. “That will be up to the discretion of the officer or prosecutor on hand, but we gets calls like this regularly for both children and animals, and we take them very seriously every time.”
Lively made it clear that calls concerning child neglect are encouraged.
“Call 911 and have them check it out first,” Lively said. “We have this happen a lot, even with animals. Just make sure you are very detailed when explaining the situation. Let them know if the engine is running, if the windows are up or down, and give them as much info as you can provide.
“Of course, if the child appears to be in distress or immediate danger, act immediately,” he said.
When asked if they would leave their child locked in their vehicle while unattended, most mothers were vocal about their distaste for such an action.
“I myself would never leave my child purposely in the car, even with it running, even just to pay for gas,” Lester said. “I worry about kidnapping, heat, etc. Even as my son gets older, he will be walking in with me. No ifs, ands or buts”