NEWS- Spring tragedy: Baby dies in JAG School parking lot
The infant son of an employee at the Judge Advocate General's School at UVA died after being left in the car March 30.
University police dispatched Friday afternoon found a baby at 4:01pm who was not breathing in the parking lot at the JAG School. The mother was on the scene, says UVA police Captain Michael Coleman, who declined to give any other details, citing the ongoing investigation and the delay in receiving medical examiner results.
The baby died of hyperthermia, and the death has been ruled accidental, says Rochelle Altholz of the state medical examiner's office.
Coleman refused to identify the mother on grounds that the information is protected by HIPAA– the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act– that protects medical patients. When asked if the baby's mother had been hospitalized, he replied, "The infant is a juvenile, and identifying the mother would identify the victim."
"It was an infant boy less than a year old," says Captain Bret Batdorff at the JAG school, who also confirmed that the baby was found in a car in the parking lot, and that the owner of the vehicle is an employee there.
"It is very shocking," says Batdorff. "We're a small community."
There have been 322 heat-related deaths of small children left in cars since 1998, according to Jan Null, an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University who tracks incidents of hyperthermia.
The high temperature on March 30 was a comfortable 66 degrees– "absolutely" warm enough to cause the death of an infant in a car, especially over an extended period of time, says Null, who notes that children have died in cars with the temperature as low as 63 degrees.
"Basically the car becomes a greenhouse," Null says. At 70 degrees on a sunny day, after a half hour, the temperature inside a car is 104 degrees, he says. After an hour, it can reach 113 degrees.
Heat stroke occurs when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees and the victim becomes disoriented, convulsive, and unconscious.
"When the core body temperature reaches 107 degrees, that's when cells start dying, organs shut down and people die," says Null. "This all happens much faster in an infant or small child– three to five times faster than you or me."
Null also tracks the circumstances of child hyperthermia. About 40 percent of the time, the child is forgotten by a caregiver. "The person gets distracted or busy," he explains.
Another 27 percent of deaths result from children playing inside unattended cars. "You can get in, but you can't get out," says Null.
Twenty percent of the children are left intentionally while the parent does something else– hair appointment, racetrack, casino, he says.
In December 2003, a Scottsville woman, Jessica Lynn Stuple, 23, was charged with two felony counts of child endangerment for leaving her two children in a car during a snowstorm while she had her nails done.
Ironically, it's a lifesaving device– airbags– that has led to the increase in child hyperthermia deaths.
In the late 1980s, when auto manufacturers started putting airbags in cars, child fatalities increased as the safety devices deployed, killing youngsters, who traditionally rode in the front seat. Children's car seats were moved to the back seat, "but a probable consequence is they are forgotten more often," says Null.
Prosecution varies across jurisdictions, he says. "Some see it as a tragic accident. On the other hand, due to a person's negligence, you cause a death. That's manslaughter."
Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman declines to say whether charges will be filed because the case is "actively being investigated."
At least seven cases of child hyperthermia have happened in Virginia, a number that's probably low because no governmental agency tracks such deaths. If it happens on private property, "There's no mechanism for tracking them," says Null.
"Our data is only the tip of the iceberg," says Becky Ball, director of Kids in Cars-Virginia . "If the cases don't reach the media, we don't hear about them."
Ball's organization is dedicated to informing the public about the dangers of leaving children unattended in or around cars. Last year, 13 cases involved 22 children in Virginia, two of them fatalities.
In Waynesboro, three-year-old Emily Funkhouser died when she and her twin, Evan, climbed into a van May 4, 2006, to retrieve a toy and the vehicle caught fire.
In Virginia's highest-profile case, Manassas resident Kevin Kelly, father of 13 children, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and neglect in the May 29, 2002, death of his 21-month-old daughter Frances, who was left in the family van for seven hours. Kelly received seven years' probation and must spend one night in jail each year.
Currently no laws specifically prohibit leaving children unattended in cars in Virginia, although bills have been proposed three different times, says Ball.
"More states have laws about don't leave your dogs in cars– and they don't have laws about children," she says.
At press time, four days after the tragic incident, university police were still keeping the child's identity and details of his death secret.
"It's definitely a good idea to let the public know," says Ball, "to raise awareness, educate them and save lives."
The JAG School parking lot was the scene of an infant's death Friday, March 30.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE