Kids left in vehicles drawing national attention as deaths increase

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As the outside temperature floated around 70 degrees Tuesday evening, Pittsburgh police responded to a report of a child alone in a blue Honda Odyssey, six floors up in the Rivers Casino parking garage.

The 9-year-old boy had left a Pirates game with his mother that evening, but where was she? Valerie Snyder of Tarentum was inside the casino, he told police on the scene, according to court documents.

The boy’s mother, 30, told police she went to the casino to cash in a voucher she received in a program book at the Pirates game. She faces charges for leaving the youngster alone for at least 15 to 20 minutes, police said.

Although the child was not injured, the incident highlights the problem of children left in vehicles, which has been gaining national attention after 21 deaths this year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency is in the midst of its summer campaign, “Where’s Baby? Look Before You Lock,” in hopes of raising awareness among parents and caregivers.

Research from the San Francisco State University department of geosciences shows that at least 44 children in the United States died in 2013 as a result of being left a car, according to the NHTSA, bringing the average number of heatstroke fatalities per year since 1998 to 38.

Pittsburgh hasn’t seen a fatality in these instances in almost 20 years. A 4-year-old girl died after she was left in a day-care van for nearly three hours after a field trip in 1995. At least three Pittsburgh-area children, according to court documents, have been left or forgotten in cars since the beginning of July.

Kids and Cars, a nonprofit child safety organization based in Kansas, stepped up the pressure to raise awareness for children abandoned in vehicles after a Georgia father was charged in the June death of his 2-year-old son, who was left in the car for seven hours. In July, the organization began gathering signatures on a petition in an effort to persuade the Obama administration to require improved safety standards in vehicles.

When vehicles are left in the sun, the temperature tends to rise quickly as the windows create a greenhouse effect that traps light and heat.

Raymond Pitetti, emergency department associate medical director at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, calls this sort of experience “hell on Earth.”

The children sit and wait as their bodies swelter. Children tend to be more susceptible to heat-related injuries than adults, Dr. Pitetti said.

Death by hyperthermia — when the body absorbs more heat than it can expel — isn’t always quick, the doctor said. Level of hydration, outside temperature and length of exposure are all factors that determine how long a person stays alive. Within minutes, the body’s core temperature peaks as the car’s heat levels rise and oxygen levels drop.

It begins with heat exhaustion. Blood circulation to the arms and legs increases while the sweat pours. A child’s body, unable to shed the excess heat, can only perspire so much as the sweat evaporates and the skin hardens.

The heart beats faster as the child becomes less responsive. In the midst of heatstroke, vomiting and seizures follow suit, and the organs ultimately fail, causing death, the doctor said.

Kids and Cars founder Janette Fennell said parents are quick to cast judgment and assume that they would never be involved in such a situation.

“In their mind, it distances them from the type of person they believe does this,” Ms. Fennell added. “What everybody needs to hear is that this can happen to absolutely anyone.”

Ms. Fennell and her colleagues have until Aug. 13 to gather 100,000 signatures on a petition the group filed with the White House last month. The petition calls for support from the federal government, automotive industry and child-safety experts and calls for new funding for the Department of Transportation to develop child-detection technology that manufacturers would be required to use.

“It’s going to take a national effort with money behind it to put solutions together,” Ms. Fennell said. “We cannot continue to let kids die in hot cars.”

In Tuesday’s incident at the casino, Ms. Snyder was arrested on the scene and jailed while the boy was picked up by his father, according to the documents. She was charged with leaving a child unattended in a vehicle as well as a felony count of endangering welfare of children.

“We can’t stop parents from making bad decisions, but we are vigilant in our efforts to prevent this from happening,” a Rivers Casino spokesperson said.

The mother, released Wednesday from jail, received a lifetime ban from the casino, the statement said.


Michael Majchrowicz: or on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz

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