Earlier this month, two local infants died of heat stroke, after being accidentally left in cars — one in Baltimore County, the other in Arlington. It's a parent's worst nightmare, but each year, this happens dozens of times across the country. One Virginia mother has made it her mission to prevent these tragic deaths.
In March 2007, Lyn Balfour's son Bryce was 9 months old. March 30 — a Friday — was the end of a hectic week, and Balfour was just about to leave work when she got a call from her babysitter, who wanted to check in and see how Bryce was doing.
"I'm like, 'What do you mean? He's there with you,'" Balfour recalls saying. "And she says, 'No, he's not here.'"
Balfour couldn't understand what the babysitter was saying; she remembered dropping her son off that morning.
"That's one of the dangers, is misremembering," says Balfour. "Where you do something every day, like taking medication. You swear you took, it and you never did."
In the next days and weeks and months, she would keep replaying that morning. What had happened? That morning, her normal, daily routine was all mixed up.
"My memory triggers on a normal day would have been the diaper bag."
Usually she left it next to her on the front seat — that morning, her husband had put it in the back.
"Hearing the baby in the back seat."
Usually Bryce would coo and chatter. That morning he was sick with a cold, and didn't make a sound.
"Seeing the baby in the rear view mirror, behind the passenger seat in my field of view."
That morning, her husband had put the car seat on the other side of the car.
"Dropping off my husband first."
Usually Jarrett drove himself; that morning she dropped him off.
"You know, in your mind you say, 'I have a drop-off, check, it's done.'"
Then, she got an emergency call from work and spent the rest of the drive putting out fires.
"I go past, in a green light, right past where I would make a left to drop him off at daycare."
She got to work, parked the car, and went on with her day.
Until that call from the babysitter: Her mind was racing as she dropped the phone and ran to the car.
"I was screaming hysterically, but I kinda went into military mode," she says. "I pulled him out of the car, and I put him on the ground, and started CPR, and no one wants to know what that feels like to perform CPR on your own child."
Bryce had been in the car, strapped into his car seat in the sunny parking lot for seven-and-a-half hours. Though the temperature outside was just 66 degrees that day, inside the car it was 108 degrees.
"I was one of those parents that had heard about this happening, and said, 'that's an irresponsible parent, that can't possibly be me. I could never forget my child.'"
Could it happen to you?
How could a loving parent forget a child?
"This can happen to anyone," says Janette Fennell, founder of the group Kids and Cars, which campaigns to prevent accidents like this.
She points to brain research to explain.
"In the very front of our brain, which is the pre-frontal cortex, that's where we keep our list of things to do: 'I'm going to drop off my child, I'm going to get a cup of coffee, then as soon as I get to work I'm going to find the document I need.'"
When Lyn Balfour drove to work that day, that front part of her brain was sort of overridden by another part of the brain — the basal ganglia, which handles routine behavior, like driving to work.
"Most people have experienced this," says Fennell. "When they're driving somewhere and then, they call it autopilot. And that is that part of the brain just taking over."
Kate Carr, president of Safe Kids Worldwide, has had that autopilot experience while driving. She was supposed to drop off you 3-year-old daughter at daycare.
"It wasn't my normal routine to go and drop her off in the morning at her daycare. And as we were driving on Connecticut Avenue here in Washington, D.C., we crossed the bridge and were getting close to my office. This little voice from the back came and said, 'Aren't you going to drop me off at school today?'"
They turned the car around, and everyone got to where they were going. But in slightly different circumstances that day could have ended disastrously. On average, more than 30 children die in hot cars each year, nationwide. This year, we're on track for a higher number.
"I wish I could explain why we're seeing increased numbers as compared to where we were at this point last year," says Carr. "Sadly, to date, there have been 23 children who have lost their lives in a hot vehicle this year."
Last year, the number of deaths was 14 by late July. Experts say these deaths are all preventable. But what can be done to stop them, when nobody thinks it will happen to them? Some say charging parents for negligence is part of the answer.
Living with grief
Paul Ebert has prosecuted two such high-profile cases in the past decade. He is the Commonwealth's Attorney in Prince William County, Va.
"Crimes that are accidents, whether it be this type of crime or vehicular manslaughter or things of that nature, are always hard to prosecute and there are always two sides to the story. But they are crimes, and they let the message go out, in hopes that someone else will think twice before they do the same negligent act which may cause the death or serious bodily harm to another."
Nationwide, charges are filed in about half of these cases. For Lyn Balfour, the phone call came the same day she buried her son, April 6, 2007. She was being charged with felony murder.
"When you make a mistake of this magnitude, it doesn't matter whether you go to jail. It doesn't matter where you are. You're in hell every day."
She didn't go to jail — the jury acquitted her. But her conscience didn't. That's why she's told her story in countless interviews over the past six years.
"You know, people say, 'She should have gone to jail, or she should have her uterus removed, or she should never be allowed to have children again.' But this is my penance."
To relive that day over and over and over, in public.
Balfour now works with the group Kids and Cars, and she tells every parent she meets her prevention tips: keep a teddy bear in the front seat to remind you your baby's in the back, or put your cell phone, something you need, in the back with the baby.
Kids and Cars is also pushing carmakers and Congress to embrace new technology. They say the same way your car beeps if you leave the lights on, it should beep if you've left your baby in the back seat.
July 31 is National Heatstroke Prevention Day, focusing on ending the deaths of kids in hot cars.
[Music: "Where She Lives Everyday" by Bexar Bexar from Haralambos]