A New York father was charged over the weekend with the deaths of his twin babies after leaving them for hours in a hot car. Juan Rodriguez told police that he drove to work Friday morning and forgot to drop off his pair of 1-year-olds at daycare. It wasn’t until that afternoon while driving home from work that Rodriguez says he discovered his children were still strapped in their carseats in the backseat. That was when a passerby observed him pulled over on the side of the road screaming, tragically, “I killed my babies!” The twins were pronounced dead at the scene.
Since then, Rodriguez was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, and made his $100,000 bail. He’s also been turned into tabloid fodder. Both the charges and the media attention elide a softer, scarier reality: What happened to Rodriguez and his family is, by all appearances, a horrifyingly relatable mistake. It could happen to you. It could happen to anyone—but we, parents especially, want so desperately not do believe it.
There has been a steady stream of nearly two-dozen articles about Rodriguez’s case since last week. Multiple stories have focused, with apparent surprise, on the fact that his wife has forgiven him. Some have highlighted the supposed contradiction of his being described as an “amazing,” “doting” father. On Monday, three days after the death of his children, the New York Post turned him into a pseudo-celebrity, publishing a story with the headline, “Dad charged in twins’ hot car deaths spotted after making bail.” In an accompany image, he’s shown walking down the street, merely talking on his cellphone. It’s the type of first-spotted-in-public photograph paparazzi might take of a disgraced politician mid-scandal, although so far no evidence of foul play has emerged. So far, the only narrative is one of a massive life-changing, life-ending mistake.
Moralizing, whether it’s by way of tawdry paparazzi pics or homicide charges, distances all of us from the horror of these cases. No parent wants to believe that such an act could be an easy mistake rather than the result of massive negligence; that not only could this happen to them, but that it does happen: on average 38 children die of heatstroke each year after being left in a car, according to the New York Times. In many cases where children have been legitimately forgotten in the backseat, it hasn’t been the result of bad parenting, but rather chance and circumstance. How many times must we be reminded of this?
Back in 2009, the Washington Post published a heartbreaking, and Pulitzer Prize-winning, feature on hot car deaths. “When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just... forgets a child is in the car,” wrote Gene Weingarten. He emphasized how these cases cut across lines of class, age, ethnicity, and gender. Often, these deaths happen because of “a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine,” as a researcher and memory expert told the Post of these cases. Indeed, in one profiled case, a mother forgot to drop her child at the babysitter’s because she was multitasking and on her cellphone talking “to her boss about a scheduling snafu.”
These deaths used to be relatively rare, but, as the Post explained a decade ago, “in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear.” Now, it is that much easier to not notice a child in the backseat when exiting a car.
We know a simple, practical ways to prevent these cases: manufacturing cars with backseat sensors. But efforts to pass bills requiring such sensors have failed, in part because of auto lobby resistance. As the Times reported last month, groups opposing such legislation, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies on behalf of a dozen major car companies, “have long said that education is enough.” The Hot Cars Act of 2019, which would require that cars remind drivers to check the back seat after the engine has been turned off, has made it to Congress—but no such bill has passed, despite two decades of efforts. A scattering of products—from reminder apps to weight sensors attached to alarm systems—have popped up as potential solutions, but people have to first believe that they could commit such a horrific mistake in order for them to buy one of these products.
There is a failure to empathize, to admit vulnerability, in so much of the reactions to these cases. That isn’t just when it comes to public judgment—in the form of punishing article comments and tweets—of which there is plenty. In fact, the Post highlighted the case of a prosecutor who pursued a charge of involuntary manslaughter against a father who forgot his toddler son in the car. When asked whether he could have imagined doing the same, given that he was a father himself, the attorney said, “I have to say no, it couldn’t have happened to me. I am a watchful father.”
Of course, we all want to believe a variation on that. Plenty in our culture suggests that good parenting provides immunity against such horrors. As with so much judgment around parenting, the blame in these cases is individualized and singularized, despite the highly relatable themes of work stress, multitasking, and sleep deprivation that often accompany hot car deaths. The implied solution—via tabloids, via courts, via online commentary—is personal rather than collective: being an infallible parent. The kind who always perfectly manages the stresses and distractions of modern parenthood. It’s a comforting, if constricting, fantasy—but one that, ironically, drives us further from the empathy that might prompt solutions that help prevent these accidents of chance and circumstance.