‘We’re not monsters – this could happen to anyone’ – mum of baby who died in hot car speaks out as child death toll tops 800

Realising his mistake, the distraught couple raced back to Brett’s van to find their daughter was dead in her car seat – left to boil in sweltering temperatures.

Tragically, little Ray Ray isn’t the only child to have met her death in this way.

The phenomenon of vehicular heatstroke – where a person’s body rapidly overheats while they’re inside a vehicle – has killed 819 children in the US in 20 years.

He was vilified by parents around the world, but the dead tots’ mother stood steadfastly by him, calling him ‘a great father’ – and this week a judge said ‘he had no case to answer’.

For mum Kristie Reeves-Cavaliero, every single death leaves her “reliving the tragedy” of her own one-year-old daughter Sophia Rayne – known as Ray Ray.

“People think ‘this would never happen to me’,” Kristie told Sun Online.

“Because it’s easier to think that only a monster would do this – it’s really scary to think that as a parent your memory could fail you.

“But no matter how much you love you child and how good of a parent you are, under the right circumstances it’s possible you could overlook a sleeping child in the back seat.”

But why are so many children dying this way?

In a terrible irony, some believe modern, rear-facing car seats – that are designed to improve infants’ safety but put them out of direct view of their parents – are partly to blame.

And while many people are quick to slam parents for “forgetting” their children, a leading expert has said it’s not a negligence problem but a memory problem called Forgotten Baby Syndrome.

This psychological state sees parents suffer a memory lapse – often because they’re performing repetitive tasks on “autopilot” or there has been a change in their daily routine.

“I gave her a kiss goodbye and said I loved her”

Kristie, 44, from Austin, Texas, and her husband Brett, 50, had just celebrated Ray Ray’s first birthday when tragedy struck on a 34C day in May 2011.

That morning, they had overslept and Kristie recalls scrambling around the house and rushing to dress Ray Ray in a special outfit to celebrate “tropical day” at her nursery.

“I walked out with my husband to take Ray Ray to his truck and then put her in her car seat, like we would always do as a couple,” she said.

“I gave her a kiss goodbye and told her I loved her and that was the last time that I saw her alive.

“He drove down the driveway and went down the hill for what we had assumed would be a relatively normal day.

“And what essentially happened in our case was that at the bottom of our hill, he was supposed to turn left to drop her off at nursery and he turned right instead.

‘He was on autopilot and she was rear-facing’

“When he made that right hand turn, I guess in his mind he was on his way to work – autopilot had taken over – and she was probably asleep and she was rear-facing.

“He got to his office and she didn’t make a sound or anything and he couldn’t see her because she was rear facing.”

Kirstie picked Brett up later that day for lunch in a nearby cafe – and it was only when they started talking about Ray Ray’s “tropical day” dress that Brett began to panic.

“We were talking about how cute Ray Ray looked in her tropical dress – her teacher had given her the dress to wear,” she recalled.

“And that triggered him to think, ‘Why didn’t the teachers say anything about her dress?’

“We’d got to the restaurant and I had not even turned the car off and he’d said: ‘Go back to the office immediately.’

“And I said, ‘Why? And he said, ‘Just go back to the office immediately’. I got to the traffic light and it was red and he told me to run the light and I said, ‘What is going on?’

“I remember him saying, ‘I can’t remember dropping Ray Ray off at nursery’ and my heart just dropped.

“I floored the gas… but she couldn’t be saved”

“I ran the light, I floored the gas on my car – I instructed him to call the office and have them check his truck and at the same time I’m calling the nursery.

“Almost simultaneously the nursery said she wasn’t in class and the office manager said, ‘We’ve got her out of the truck and we’re performing CPR.’ We had called 911 but we got there before the first responders and I ended up working on her and trying to resuscitate her.”

Ray Ray had been left in the car for around three hours amid 34C outside temperatures. In that heat, the temperature inside vehicles can soar to above 57C.

When the human body reaches temperatures above 40C, organs can start to shut down – but kids are even more vulnerable because their bodies heat up three to five times quicker than adults’.

“She could not be saved,” Kristie said.

“That’s testament to how quickly the heat can become deadly for young children.”

“Cruel and unusual punishment”

For Kristie, who never blamed her husband for leaving Ray Ray in the car, being investigated by authorities while grieving for Ray Ray added even more stress to an already traumatic situation.

She feared her husband could be locked up and he also became suicidal – on the night of his daughter’s death, he had to be hospitalised after he attempted to take his own life.

The couple, who are living an “eternal nightmare”, still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – which can be triggered by getting into a hot car or hearing about other children’s deaths.

While Brett was not charged after a grand jury investigation, Kristie said they both still felt like they were “tried, judged and executed” by the public following Ray Ray’s death.

How to keep your kids safe

  • “Look Before You Lock” ‐ Get in the habit of always opening the back door to check the back seat before leaving your vehicle. Make sure no child has been left behind.
  • Create a reminder to check the back seat.
  • Put something you’ll need like your phone, handbag, employee ID or brief case, etc., in the back seat so that you have to open the back door to retrieve that item every time you park.
  • Keep a large stuffed animal in the child’s car seat. When the child is placed in the car seat, place the stuffed animal in the front passenger seat. It’s a visual reminder that the child is in the back seat.
  • Make sure you have a strict policy in place with your childcare provider to call you immediately if your child does not show up as planned.
  • Keep vehicles locked at all times, even in driveways or garages. Ask home visitors, child care providers and neighbours to do the same.
  • Keep car keys and remote openers out of reach of children.
  • Teach toddlers how to honk the horn of a car if they become trapped inside.
  • Never leave children alone in or around cars; not even for a minute.
  • If a child goes missing, immediately check the inside passenger compartments and trunks of all vehicles in the area very carefully, even if they are locked. A child may lock the car doors after entering a vehicle on their own, but may not be able to unlock them.
  • If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. Call police immediately. If the child seems hot or sick, get them out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.
  • Be especially careful during busy times, schedule changes and periods of crisis or holidays. This is when many tragedies occur.

(Tips from KidsAndCars.org a non-profit organisation dedicated to saving the lives of young children and pets in and around vehicles)

They also suffered financially and professionally in their careers.

Kristie said her heart went out to Rodriguez, from New York, who has been charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide following the deaths of his twins Luna and Phoenix.

“This young man was arrested and booked within two hours of finding his babies dead,” she said.

“His wife is left all alone without any kind of support while she grieves the loss of her babies. Who does this benefit? It’s just a cruel and unusual punishment.”

Kristie’s scenario is sadly not uncommon – the majority of hot car deaths are caused by parents or caregivers who have accidentally left their children in the car, usually when they are supposed to have dropped the youngsters off at nursery.

Many children “forgotten” by their parents

Some 54 per cent of cases have been when children have been “forgotten” by their parents, while 26 per cent have been when children have gained access to a car on their own and not been able to get out, according to the website Noheatstroke.org which has been compiling data since 1998.

Only 18.9 per cent of hot car deaths involve negligent parents who have knowingly left their children – using the car as a “babysitter” while they went to work or even a bar.

Figures prior to 1998 are very low – around 25 cases in total – which some experts put down to many parents using forward-facing car seats rather than backward-facing ones.

In recent years, research has suggested that rear-facing seats are safer in accidents – and British parents have been encouraged to keep their children in them until they’re four.

However, this means the youngsters are out of their direct view.

University of South Florida neuroscientist Professor David Diamond, who coined the term Forgotten Baby Syndrome (FBS), says the state is caused when the brain’s “habit memory” – which allows us to perform repetitive tasks such as driving to work automatically – overrides our “prospective memory” which is how we plan and carry out a future task.

In a piece he wrote for The Conversation, Prof Diamond said that each parent he studied also appeared to have created a “false memory” that they had indeed dropped their child off – which caused them to be oblivious that the child was still in the car.

His studies have found that even small changes to routine – such as taking a different route, sleep deprivation and other everyday stresses and distractions – can make these memory lapses more likely.

Dozens charged with murder or manslaughter

In the US, just under 50 per cent of states have some kind of legislative charge to punish parents who leave their children alone in their cars – and dozens of parents and caregivers have been charged with manslaughter or even murder for “forgetting” children.

Prof Diamond is opposed to jailing parents over the deaths of their children in such cases – arguing that it’s not their fault.

It was reported this week that a Bronx district attorney has decided against putting Rodriguez’s case before a grand jury while Luna and Phoenix’s deaths remain under investigation.

The criminal case is still active, but has been “paused”.

“It costs thousands and thousands to prosecute these cases not to mention the emotional stress, loss of career, loss of jobs it causes,” Kristie told us.

Number of deaths rising

“And has society benefited from that? No, they have not because the number of deaths are going up, they don’t go down.

“I would argue a better course of action would be to have these parents pay it forward by working on advocacy and increasing awareness of the dangers to our children.”

Kristie, who works as a scientist, herself is an avid campaigner on the issue – and has set up Ray Ray’s pledge, a campaign which encourages nurseries to agree to a system which alerts parents if their child is not dropped off without explanation.

Now the mother of six-year-old twins, she and her husband have a system where they text each other as soon as they have dropped off the kids – and she encourages other families to do the same.

“One call, one text, one alert is all it takes to save a child’s life,” Kristie said.

“You can get SMS reminder alerts which will remind you to text that confirmation to the other parent or caregiver. There are many free apps.

“An easy thing you can do is to set a regular alarm on your phone – to remind you to check your child has been dropped off.

“We also support legislation on introducing technologies which could prevent this in the automobile industry so it can be held accountable for the role that it plays in these tragedies.

“Some manufacturers have voluntarily implemented safety alerts and backseat reminders in their automobiles here in the US but the goal is to have that as a safety standard.”

But it’s not just children in the US who are at risk of vehicular heatstroke – British youngsters can also suffer from the potentially fatal condition despite cooler temperatures. And a 2009 study found 26 children were left in cars in just two years in France and Belgium, with seven seven fatalities.

Meteorologist Jan Null, who runs the noheatstroke.org website, conducted an experiment along with a group of doctors to find out how hot cars can get, and how quickly.

“There have been incidents where the temperature has been child death when the temperature is in the upper 60s (around 20 degrees celsius),” he said.

“We found that even on a 70F (21.1C) day the inside air temperature of a vehicle after an hour will be about 115F (46.1C). Eighty percent of the [temperature] rise is in the first 30 minutes.

Car temperatures soar in the first 30 minutes

“So let’s say it’s an 80F (26.7C) day you’re up to 125 (51.6C) after an hour.

“If it’s a 90F (32.2C) you’re up to 135F (57.2C).”

Null, whose study was published in 2005, added: “There’s a high possibility that if a child is left in a car for a period of time he or she may end up in direct sunlight – that could cause the temperature to rise even more rapidly.

“That’s why child safety advocates say not to leave your child in a car even for a minute.

The meteorologist believes there is such a high number of hot car deaths in the US because of the number of cars on the road – and the high temperatures that many states experience each summer.

“There are 250 million cars in the US,” he said, adding that it could still happen anywhere.

For Kristie, the rising number of hot car deaths makes her furious.

“Every single one of these deaths is preventable,” she said.

“My child died eight years ago and she was 498th case – and here we stand eight years later and it’s over 800 children.

“And that makes me mad as hell that nobody has done anything about this – we continue to lose around 40 children a year.”