(re: “Any parent’s nightmare,” Aug. 8)
The tragic accident involving Mr. Juan Rodriguez and his toddler twins who died of heatstroke when he accidentally left them in a car deserves our attention and compassion, not criminal prosecution.
Mr. Rodriguez reportedly faces multiple criminal charges, including criminally negligent homicide, from the Bronx District Attorney’s office.
The Bronx prosecutor needs to pay attention to the science of human memory and exercise restraint. Mr. Rodriguez reportedly left his twins in the car after dropping off his other child at day care. He then went to work, and only discovered the toddlers after work, when it was too late.
Mr. Rodriguez is reportedly otherwise an upstanding citizen, veteran and parent who immediately reported the horrifying situation, admitted the mistake, and cooperated fully with the police.
Psychologists have pointed out the unreliable and fragile nature of human memory since the 1980s. Elizabeth Loftus was one of the early memory “pioneers” in psychology. She uncovered the unreliability and suggestibility of eyewitness testimony in serious crimes. Her research led to the exoneration of dozens of people previously convicted largely through eyewitness identification, but who later turned out to be innocent.
The eyewitnesses in these cases usually were ordinary people who expressed absolute confidence in their own memory, and repeated certainty in their identification. Yet DNA and other evidence later proved them flat wrong.
The eyewitnesses had simply made common memory errors, or responded to extremely subtle suggestions by police or others, as all humans do.
This reminds me of the over-confidence and even arrogance of those who react to this tragic situation by expressing that they themselves would never forget their own child in a car. In the face of such a nightmarish event, it is perhaps easier and comforting to maintain this position.
Furthermore, when a tragedy happens such as the death of innocent toddlers, the emotional need to identify and punish a culprit is wrong. Psychologist David Diamond has extensively studied many parents who have unknowingly left their children in hot cars. He has concluded that, in the right circumstances, this horrific trauma could happen to any parent.
In this situation, according to one source, Mr. Rodriguez was reportedly in the habit of dropping off only one child, a 4-year-old son, and then going immediately to work. This habit or routine is a component of our “implicit memory system,” and like most routines, performed without much thought or conscious awareness.
It is likely that the two toddlers had fallen asleep, so he did not hear or see them. If this was the situation, Mr. Rodriguez likely followed through on his routine of dropping off the one child and then going directly to work without a cue or reminder to shift his routine or check the back seat.
When we are stressed, tired, distracted or sleep deprived, we often respond by overly relying on implicit memory systems hard-wired into the brain. In these states, we need cues (such as an alarm, sticky note or verbal reminder) if the routine changes.
Sadly, working parents of infants and toddlers are often in a mildly compromised state, and thus vulnerable to many types of memory lapses, such as what might have happened to Mr. Rodriguez. The fact is, this nightmarish event could potentially happen to any one of us.
magine the trauma that Mr. Rodriguez experienced when he discovered his dead children in the back seat of his car. The fact that his own error caused their deaths only magnifies the horror that Mr. Rodriguez and his family are facing. Next, the criminal justice system steps in and re-traumatizes Mr. Rodriguez and his family with an arrest and highly stigmatizing charges.
He and his family are forced to re-live the events through repeated investigation. They now likely face staggering legal fees, the possibility of serious penalties, and a second life-altering tragedy of a prison sentence.
If this should happen, we re-traumatize the entire family (especially the youngest child) during a time when a father and husband is most needed in a stressed and broken family system.
It is likely that Mr. Rodriguez and his family are now living in their own private hell, worse than any prison in the United States today.
As a social scientist, parent and taxpayer, I urge the Bronx District Attorney’s office to pay attention to the psychological science, and if the reported facts are true, exercise restraint. We have no business prosecuting otherwise solid, responsible parents who lack criminal intent or malfeasance.
Prosecution will not mitigate the specific tragedy, nor will it deter future deaths. In fact, it may lead to greater harm in our society as people avoid police and emergency resources when their children are injured, for fear of prosecution.
Let us respond first with an understanding of the science. This should lead to compassion and support for Mr. Rodriguez and his family, and education and awareness for the general public.
It is heartening to see that many media outlets have already responded with public education slots designed to inform the public both about the danger of hot cars, and the need to be especially vigilant whenever we are driving young children.
This is the most humane way to save this family, and help deter future tragedies.
The author is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Her views are her own.