Rulings vary in child car deaths

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MANASSAS, Va. - Kevin Kelly is a law-abiding citizen who, much distracted, left his 21-month-old daughter in a sweltering van for seven hours.

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Claire Kelly, 8, waits with her father, Kevin Kelly, as he sits in line to donate blood at a blood drive held in honor of another daughter, who died when Mr. Kelly forgot her and left her in his vehicle for several hours.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Claire Kelly, 8, waits with her father, Kevin Kelly, as he sits in line to donate blood at a blood drive held in honor of another daughter, who died when Mr. Kelly forgot her and left her in his vehicle for several hours.

Frances Kelly had probably been dead for more than four hours by the time a neighbor noticed her strapped in her car seat; when rescue personnel removed the girl from the vehicle, her skin was red and blistered, her hair matted with sweat.

What is the appropriate punishment for a doting parent responsible for his child's death? A judge eventually spared Mr. Kelly a lengthy term in prison. Still, it is a question that is asked dozens of times each year.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of children who died of heat exhaustion while trapped inside vehicles has risen dramatically, totaling around 340 in the past 10 years. Ironically, one reason was a change parents made to protect their kids after juvenile air-bag deaths peaked in 1995 - they put them in the back seat, where they are more easily forgotten.

An Associated Press analysis of more than 310 fatal incidents in the past 10 years found that prosecutions and penalties vary widely, depending in many cases on where the death occurred and who left the child to die:

- Mothers are treated much more harshly than fathers. Though mothers and fathers are charged and convicted at about the same rates, moms are 26 percent more likely to do time.

- Day-care workers and other paid baby sitters are more likely than parents to be charged and convicted. But they are jailed less frequently than parents and for less than half the time.

- Charges are filed in half of all cases - even when a child was left unintentionally.

The AP analyzed 339 fatalities involving more than 350 responsible parties.

A relatively small number of cases - about 7 percent - involved drugs or alcohol. In a few instances, the responsible parties had a history of abusing or neglecting children. Still others were single parents unable to find or afford day care.

The correlation between the rise in these deaths and the move in the 1990s to put children in the back seat is striking.

"Up to that time, the average number of children dying of hyperthermia in the United States was about 11 a year," says Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University who has studied this trend. "Then we put them in the back, turned the car seats around. And from '98 to 2006, that number is 36 a year."

Children, often too young to escape, are particularly vulnerable to heat because their immature respiratory and circulatory systems do not work as efficiently as adults'. Already this year, at least 16 children have died in hot vehicles.

In 27 percent of the cases the AP studied, the children got into the vehicles on their own. Those cases are much less likely to be prosecuted.

The AP identified more than 220 cases in which the caregiver admitted leaving the child behind. More than three-quarters of those people claim they simply forgot.

The awful truth, experts say, is that the stressed-out brain can bury a thought and go on autopilot.

"The value of the item is not only not relevant in these competing memory systems," says memory expert David Diamond, an associate psychology professor at the University of South Florida. "But, in fact, we can be more complacent because we tell ourselves, 'There's no way I would forget my child.'"

Nationwide, about 60 percent of cases where the child was left unintentionally result in charges. But policies vary wildly.

At least nine children in Las Vegas have died in hot vehicles since 1998, but charges were filed in only two of those cases.

In Memphis, Tenn., District Attorney General William L. Gibbons scoffs at the notion that he wouldn't charge someone - especially a parent - who claims to have simply forgotten a child.

Not surprisingly, the harshest treatment is reserved for those who intentionally left their children. According to the AP's analysis, those people are nearly twice as likely to serve time than people who simply forgot the child. And on average, they received sentences that were 5 years longer.

So what did Mr. Kelly deserve?

The day Frances died, the engineer was watching 12 children alone while his wife and oldest daughter were abroad visiting a cancer-stricken relative.

When he returned home, he'd asked two teenage children - both of baby-sitting age - to attend to their younger siblings while he went back to school for another daughter who was late getting out of an exam.

During the next seven hours, he ran various errands, performed chores around the house and took a son to soccer practice.

A jury convicted Mr. Kelly of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment and recommended a year in prison. But the judge instead ordered him to spend one day a year in jail for seven years and to hold an annual blood drive around the anniversary of his daughter's death.

"The judge was very, very merciful," Mr. Kelly said recently while waiting in line to donate blood.

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keepinitreal
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keepinitreal 07/29/07 - 04:46 am
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So the scenerio here is the

So the scenerio here is the old lady in the shoe syndrome ? Poor Mr Kelly, how sad that he could not remember his baby daughter being left in a sweltering hot car and he only has to spend 1 day a yr in jail and do a blood drive on her birthday is through mercy for the act committed?

He really can count his blessings.

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