Children dying of heatstroke:

Any parent’s nightmare

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Luna and Phoenix Rodriguez’s deaths shocked the Bronx. Shocked New York City. Shocked the nation.

But no one seemed more shocked than the 1-year-olds’ father, Juan Rodriguez, a U.S. Army veteran, who later said he forgot that he had not dropped the infants off at day care the morning of July 26. After driving from his New City home in Rockland County, the 39-year-old parked his Honda at James J. Peters VA Medical Center to clock into his job there as a social worker.

Eight hours later, Rodriguez returned to his car and drove a short distance before discovering the unthinkable in the back seat.

Rodriguez jumped out of his car screaming, according to published reports. Paramedics arrived, as did the police, who ultimately charged Rodriguez with criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter. Rodriguez appeared in court the following Monday, handcuffed and sobbing, as his attorney explained how this father of three simply forgot he’d not dropped his children off at the day care that morning.

Condemnation from some in the community was swift. Parents speculated at length over how someone could leave their own children to die.

A grand jury, at least for now, won’t talk about the case as prosecutors decide to wait on pushing forward on charges while they investigate.

“The biggest mistake a parent could make is thinking that it can’t happen to them,” said Sue Auriemma, vice president of the public safety awareness group Kids and Cars. “Because if they think it can’t happen to them, they’re not going to take simple steps to prevent it.”

The organization educates and reaches out to parents about common but often unnoticed dangers facing children when it comes to vehicles. Auriemma’s involvement in the cause began when her 3-year-old daughter darted behind her SUV as Auriemma backed out of her driveway. The child was injured, but recovered.

“I am that mother who said that would never happen to me,” Auriemma said. “I said I didn’t need bumper sensors because I’m a careful parent.”

So far, 24 children have perished this year in the United States because either their parents forgot they were in the car, or they snuck into a vehicle and couldn’t get out. Most of the deaths were infants left in vehicles by parents who lost awareness of their child’s whereabouts.

Few parents forget their baby, Auriemma said. But a tired, stressed-out brain on autopilot can fail.

“In just over half the cases, it’s a scenario where the parent set off to drive to day care and there was a change in routine,” she said. “Maybe the dad drove when it was usually the mom, or one baby was staying home while the other was going to day care.”

In Rodriguez’s case, police said he dropped off his 3-year-old before heading to work.

People have two categories of memory, according to a paper published by neuroscientist David Diamond. He’s studied the reason behind what he calls “forgotten baby syndrome.”

Retrospective memory is the knowledge and habits etched into a mind by repeated actions or recall. It’s why people never forget their address or how to ride a bike.

Prospective memory draws on existing knowledge to carry out some action in the future.

Prospective memory “takes place repeatedly on a daily basis,” Diamond wrote. “Examples … on a typical day may include plans to return a phone call to a colleague after lunch, to take medication prior to going to bed, or to interrupt the routine drive home to stop at a pharmacy to pick up medication.”

But a distracted or tired driver may forget to make the turn to go to the pharmacy because they’ve driven right home countless times in the past.

“Just as a detective can forget his weapon in a public bathroom and a pilot can forget to set the wing flaps properly prior to take-off, a parent or caretaker can forget a child in a car,” Diamond wrote, “which puts the child at risk of harm from heatstroke.”

Habit, sleep deprivation, stress, lack of a reminder, distractions and multi-tasking — all common in working parents with infants — can overload the brain’s prospective memory.

Parents this has happened to later said they were certain they took the child to day care first. One even said she sat her phone prominently on her desk in case the day care called. Another said she remembered handing over the diaper bag and listing off its contents to day care workers.

“Our minds create false memories that are pictures of all the other days that you’ve dropped their children off at day care,” Auriemma said.

Rear-facing child safety car seats have saved millions of lives from traffic accidents and airbag impacts, but the unintended consequence is parents in the front seat don’t see their children in the back. Infants fall asleep easily during car rides. Without some reminder, a busy parent focused on work will sometimes forget they’re there.

Many vehicles’ rear windows are tinted, making it hard for passersby to see into the back seat.

There are ways a parent can avoid tragedy. Auriemma recommends repeating the mantra “look before you lock” as a reminder to check the car seats before walking away.

Parents also can keep their cell phone, computer bag or purse on the floor behind them so they have to open the rear door and reach in before leaving, Auriemma said. If they’re not carrying anything, they can take off a shoe and place it in the back seat.

Parents also can have their day care call them or a family member if their child doesn’t show up in the morning. Some vehicle alarms and safety technology have showed promise, but even they have failure rates.

The deaths of Luna and Phoenix Rodriguez sparked a high-profile conversation about hot car deaths, which Auriemma hopes will educate the public about how easily these deaths can happen.

“It’s a chance for us to reach millions of parents and help them to understand that this isn’t happening because these parents are bad parents,” Auriemma said. “It’s happening because people don’t think it could happen to them.”

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