BALTIMORE - Many have a hard time understanding what happened to 16-month-old Sabriya Towels on Friday.
The infant died that day after a relative accidentally left her in a truck for more than four hours.
The relative, not a parent, was supposed to drop her off at the Highland Village Head Start Center in Lansdowne. But instead, he drove to their home on South Paca St. and went inside to sleep and didn't realize the girl was still in the vehicle until he went to pick her back up from the center at the 4100 block of McDowell Lane.
Baltimore County police spokeswoman Cpl. Cathy Batton said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled that Sabriya died of hyperthermia and her death was ruled accidental. The investigation will be referred to the State's Attorney's Office for review to determine if charges will be filed, Batton added.
Unfortunately, law enforcement officials, child safety advocates and physicians say accidents like what occurred to Sabriya are not as uncommon as one might think. According to KidsandCars.org, a Kansas City, Mo.-based organization, an average of 38 children die every year from heat-related symptoms after being trapped in a vehicle. Of those, more than 54 percent of those cases are similar to Sabriya's death where the child was left in the vehicle unknowingly.
"It's a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around, but these tragic death occur every year," said Amber Rollins, director of KidsandCars.org . "As difficult as it may seem, most of these cases happen with those who are loving, caring and responsible parents who just made a tragic, horrible mistake."
Rollins said the nation started to experience a surge in heat-related deaths of children left in vehicles in the mid-1990s when parents started almost universally sitting children in the back seat due to state laws and a fear of kids being suffocated by airbags following an accident.
According to KidsandCars.org figures, such deaths hit their peak in 2010 with 49. However, there has been a run of similar tragedies in recent weeks, including seven children dying from heat-related deaths in cars over a 16-day period in May.
Also, on the same day as Sabriya's death, an 8-month-old boy died after Alexandria (Va.) police said his mother accidentally left him in a hot car while she was at work . His mother, Zoraida Magali Conde Hernandez, 32, has been charged with felony child neglect after her baby's death and is being held without bond.
"We're obviously not advocating putting children in the front seat, but all too often, all it takes is a slight change in routine or distraction for a tragedy like these to occur," Rollins said. "A parent could be stressed about work, balancing responsibilities of other kids and/or might just not be getting enough sleep, which could impact how the brain functions."
Dr. Elaine Lennox, a pediatrician who works in the emergency department at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, said it can take as little as 15 minutes for a child to suffer serious injuries after being locked in a hot car, where temperatures can easily reach more than 100 degrees in the summer.
Heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, renal failure, cardiac arrest and death are just some of what can happen to a child left in a hot car, Dr. Lennox said.
"Young children don't have the ability to regulate their temperatures like adults," Dr. Lennox said. "It can take just minutes for serious injuries and illnesses to occur.
Simple steps saves lives
Batton said parents and other caretakers can take a few simple steps to reduce the chances of tragedies similar to Sabriya's. This includes always looking in the back seat – even on cool days – before getting out of the car to make that a part of your daily routine.
Also, Batton said, many daycare providers will make arrangements with parents and relatives to call them if their child does not arrive as scheduled.
"It is illegal to leave a child unattended," Batton said. "There are some basic processes people can go through to ensure a child's safety."
KidsandCare.org also offer some of the following additional safety steps:
- Never leave children alone in or around cars; not even for a minute.
- Put something you'll need like your cell phone, handbag, employee ID or brief case, etc., on the floorboard 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.
- Keep a large stuffed animal in the child's car seat when it's not occupied. When the child is placed in the seat, put the stuffed animal in the front passenger seat. It's a visual reminder that anytime the stuffed animal is up front you know the child is in the back seat in a child safety seat.
- Make sure all child passengers have left the vehicle after it is parked.
- 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.
"Many of these deaths could have been prevented," Rollins said. "It's also important to get people out of the mindset to automatically consider these parents ‘monsters.' The fact of the matter is this could happen to anyone if you're not carful."