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Officials warn parents against leaving children in hot cars

POSTED: June 19, 2014 11:02 p.m.

It’s never a good idea to leave a child alone in a car, local child experts say, but somehow it still happens as evidenced by a metro Atlanta case Wednesday that killed a 22-month-old.

The Cobb County death resulted in a murder and cruelty to children charge for the father, 33-year-old Justin Ross Harris.

Authorities said Harris was supposed to drive his son to day care, but instead drove straight to work and didn’t realize the boy was strapped into his car seat until the ride home that afternoon.

“The only thing I can think of is that it must’ve been completely out of the routine. That he wasn’t primarily the person who did the drop-off,” said Jenifer McKnight, who owns the Primrose School of Gainesville. “Other than it being completely out of his routine, I can’t imagine how you could forget.”

McKnight said her school’s staff tries to help parents who are new to the routine by checking in on them.

“If there’s a child that’s not here when they’re usually here every day, and their parents haven’t called to tell us that they won’t be here, we typically call those families. That would be that trigger to remind them. We make sure we’re in touch with them all the time.”

This method of accountability is only one of the ways Kim Martin, head of Safe Kids Gainesville, hopes to avoid cases like Harris’.

“We educate about kids in hot cars — we call it the “Look Before You Lock” program,” Martin said. “We address it with all parents. This crosses all socioeconomic, all education levels.”

If the parents don’t pay attention, she urges the public to get involved.

“When you’re out and about and you see a child of any age in a car, even with a window cracked, it’s not going to help,” Martin said. “...It’s never ever a good idea to leave a child alone in the car for any reason.”

In this instance, calling 911 to report the car could save a child’s life, Martin said.

Connie Stephens sees cases of child neglect like this as executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocate program, and to her it’s “heartbreaking.”

“Was the child asleep? Was the father under the influence? Was this out of the norm? Those are all the questions I have. It doesn’t justify his leaving the child in the car, but it might help us understand how that could happen.”

Stephens, whose program provides advocates for children in court, hopes this fatality will be a wake-up call to parents.

“I think the biggest lesson we’ve got here is that other parents need to be more vigilant about protecting their children. Whether it’s in a car or anywhere. Just be vigilant about protecting your children because they are little human beings that need and deserve our protection.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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