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Editorial: Is tragedy of child’s death also a crime?

The death of a 2-year-old girl in her mother’s hot car last week has sparked sadness and anger in the community. Unless investigators find signs of malice or intent, though, the tragedy should not prompt criminal charges.

Police have released only minimal information about the child’s death. We know that her mother, who works at the Hefner VA Medical Center, left her car in the hospital parking lot that morning and went in to work. Someone else spotted the child late in the afternoon, and a VA police officer broke the car window to get to the girl. It was too late. Though Thursday was not an especially hot day, a closed-up automobile heats up quickly in bright sunlight. The girl was dead at the scene.

That’s enough information for some people to call for the mother’s arrest and sentencing, without even a trial. But police need more. What was the family’s child-care routine? Did the mother usually take her daughter to day care? Did she intend to leave the child in the car?

Where is the line between mistake and neglect?

So far this year, more than 30 children have died in hot cars across the nation. Prosecution in such cases is uneven, depending on circumstances and prosecutors. In cases where a parent purposely leaves a child unattended in a car, there is little question. Whether it’s done by a worker who doesn’t have a babysitter or a shopper who lacks judgment, intentionally leaving a child confined in a hot, closed-up car is a crime.

Memory lapses are different matter, one exacerbated by safety standards. Because front-seat air bags can hurt children, their car seats must go in the back. A parent focused on the road and the day ahead can drive to work on auto-pilot, forget the daycare center and go in to work without seeing the child. If you find that hard to believe, be thankful for your perfect memory and constant vigilance. Unfortunately, others of us understand how such an oversight could happen. It’s a mistake — a terrible, irrevocable lapse that will haunt the family for their rest of their days.

With all the gadgets and sensors in our lives today, technology should pick up where parents’ memories fail. That’s the thinking behind a bill introduced in Congress just last month by a bipartisan group of representatives. Under the Hot Cars Act of 2016, H.R. 6041, all new passenger vehicles would need to be equipped with technology to alert drivers if a child is left in the backseat. General Motors has already announced it will install a warning tone and reminder message in all 2017 Acadias.

Nothing will bring back the little girl who died in the VA parking lot, but we can work to protect other children from the same fate. Meanwhile, put yourself in the mother’s place and imagine the horror she experienced last Thursday afternoon. Most likely, she needs sympathy, not judgment.

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