The last word: Forgotten baby syndrome

Every year, at least a dozen children die in overheated cars in the U.S. because parents forgot they were there. Don’t assume, says The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, that it couldn’t happ

Every year, at least a dozen children die in overheated cars in the U.S. because parents forgot they were there. Don’t assume, says The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, that it couldn’t happen to you.

The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in his wooden chair, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.

The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, had been a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer—beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cell phone—he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in the blistering heat of July.

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It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.

“Death by hyperthermia” is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just ... forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer, and early fall. The season is almost upon us.

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child ... well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.

In Miles Harrison’s case, the judge ultimately decided there was no crime because there was no intent. Prosecutors, judges, and juries reach similar conclusions in many of these cases. But if Harrison’s failing is not manslaughter, what is it? An accident?

“That’s an imperfect word.”

This is Mark Warschauer, an expert in language learning. “The word ‘accident’ makes it sound like it can’t be prevented, but ‘incident’ makes it sound trivial. And it is not trivial.”

Warschauer is a professor at the University of California at Irvine. In the summer of 2003, he returned to his office from lunch to find a crowd surrounding a car in the parking lot. Police had smashed the window open with a crowbar. Only as he got closer did Warschauer realize it was his car. That was his first clue that he’d forgotten to drop his 10-month-old son, Mikey, at day care that morning. Mikey was dead.

Warschauer wasn’t charged with a crime, but for months afterward he contemplated suicide. Gradually, he says, the urge subsided, if not the grief and guilt.

“We lack a term for what this is,” Warschauer says. And also, he says, we need an understanding of why it happens to the people it happens to.

David Diamond is picking at his breakfast at a Washington, D.C., hotel, trying to explain.

“Memory is a machine,” he says, “and it is not flawless. If you’re capable of forgetting your cell phone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child.”

Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida. He’s in D.C. to give a conference speech about his research, which involves the intersection of emotion, stress, and memory. What he’s found is that under some circumstances, the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center can be held hostage to a competing memory system, a primitive portion of the brain that is—by a design as old as the dinosaur’s—pigheaded, nonanalytical, stupid.

Diamond recently forgot, while driving to a mall, that his infant granddaughter was asleep in the back of his car. He remembered, he said, only because his wife mentioned the baby. So he understands what could have happened had he been alone with the child. Almost worse, he understands exactly why.

The human brain, he says, is a jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top are the most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.

Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant basal ganglia is operating the car; that’s why you’ll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made, or the scenery you saw.

Ordinarily, says Diamond, this delegation of duty “works beautifully, like a symphony.” But sudden or chronic stress can weaken the brain’s higher-functioning centers, making them more susceptible to bullying from the basal ganglia. He’s seen that pattern in cases he’s followed involving infant deaths in cars.

“The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant,” he said. “The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep, and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted—such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back—it can entirely disappear.”

Diamond stops. “There is a case in Virginia where this is exactly what happened, the whole set of stress factors. I was consulted on it a couple of years ago. It was a woman named, ah ...”

He puts down his fork and shakes his head. He’s been stressing over his conference speech, he says, and his memory retrieval is shot. He can’t summon the name.

Lyn Balfour?

“Yeah, Lyn Balfour! The perfect storm.”

Raelyn Balfour is what is commonly called a type-A personality. The 37-year-old Army reservist is the first to admit that her inclination to take on multiple challenges at once contributed to the death of her son, Bryce, two years ago. It happened on March 30, 2007, the day she accidentally left the 9-month-old in the parking lot of the Charlottesville, Va., judge advocate general’s office, where she worked as a transportation administrator. The temperature that day was only in the 60s, but heat builds quickly in a closed vehicle in the sun. The temperature inside Balfour’s car that day topped 110 degrees.

Circumstances had conspired against Balfour. She had been up much of the night, first baby-sitting for a friend with a pet emergency, then caring for Bryce, who was cranky with a cold. Because the baby was still tired, he uncharacteristically dozed in the car, so he made no noise. Because Balfour was planning to bring Bryce’s usual car seat to the fire station to be professionally installed, Bryce was positioned in a different car seat that day, directly behind the driver, and thus less visible. Because of a phone conversation with a young relative in trouble, and another with her boss about a crisis at work, Balfour spent most of the trip on her cell, stressed, solving other people’s problems.

One more thing: Because the baby sitter had a new phone, it didn’t yet contain Balfour’s office phone number, only her cell number—so when the sitter phoned to wonder why Balfour hadn’t dropped Bryce off that morning, it rang unheard in Balfour’s pocketbook.

Balfour was charged with second-degree murder in Bryce’s death but was eventually acquitted. The key moment in her trial was when the defense attorney played for the jury a recording of a 911 call made by a passer-by in the first few seconds after Balfour discovered Bryce’s body. That tape is unendurable. Mostly, you hear the passer-by’s voice, tense but precise, explaining to a police dispatcher what she is seeing. Initially, there’s nothing in the background. Then Balfour howls at the top of her lungs, “OH, MY GOD, NOOOO!”

For a few seconds, there’s nothing. Then another deafening shriek: “NO, NO, PLEASE, NO!!!”

Unlike most parents who have suffered similar tragedies, Balfour now is willing to talk to the media, anytime. She works with a group called Kids and Cars, telling her story repeatedly. In public, she seldom seems in particular anguish. No one sees her cry. She has, she says, consciously crafted the face she shows. “People say I’m a strong woman, but I’m not. I would like to disappear, to move someplace where no one knows who I am and what I did. But I can’t. I’m the lady who killed her child, and I have to be that lady because I promised Bryce.”

Balfour has kept her promise in a way suited to her personality: She has become a modern, maternal version of the Ancient Mariner. When speaking to the media, her consistent message is that cars need safety devices to prevent similar tragedies. From time to time, though, she will simply belly up to strangers in, say, a Sam’s Club, and start a conversation about children, so she can tell them what she did to one of hers. Her message: This can happen to anyone.

From a longer story originally published in The Washington Post Magazine. ©2009 by The Washington Post Co.

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