"I blanked out. I killed my babies”: How the brain makes it easy to forget your child in a hot car
The more we understand how it happens, the more we can stop it from happening.
Every summer, news reports emerge about children dying from heatstroke and/or dehydration after being left in a hot car.
Earlier this month, a five-year-old boy died in Croatia when his father forgot he was sleeping in the back of the car and left him locked in it. In 2019, a father in New York was charged with manslaughter after unintentionally killing his 1-year-old twins by leaving them in the car.
Both fathers claimed they forgot to drop their children off at school or daycare and proceeded to work, convinced that they had actually dropped the kids off.
"I assumed I dropped them off at daycare before I went to work. I blanked out," 39-year-old Juan Rodriguez, who was visibly devastated in court, told NYPD at the scene. "My babies are dead. I killed my babies."
When we read stories like this, we wonder just how somebody could possibly forget and leave their own kids in such a dangerous situation. We comfort ourselves into believing such a thing could never happen to our families, as the parents of those children had to have been homicidal or negligent.
Yet Rodriguez's wife Marissa released a statement saying how her husband was a "good person and great father" who never would have intentionally hurt any of their five children. "I know he will never forgive himself for this mistake," the statement said. "This was a horrific accident, and I need him by my side to go through this together."
Neighbours and family friends also spoke to the media about how dedicated a father Rodriguez was to the twins and his older children, aged 16, 12 and 4. "That one time you make a mistake, and you have to live with it for the rest of your life," one neighbour told the New York Post.
The scary reality is that instances like this can happen to anyone, and the vast majority of these cases truly are tragic accidents. Psychological research has revealed that our brains can easily forget the presence of our nearest and dearest when we're under stress or strain.
David Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, has been studying the psychology of why kids are accidentally left in cars for the past 15 years. He told Huffpost how a power struggle takes place between our conscious and subconscious memory in incidents like these.
"What we have is this autopilot system in our brain that permits us to multitask – it permits us to do things automatically, almost subconsciously, which means we can get from point A to point B out of habit," he said.
"And in the process of triggering this autopilot system, we lose awareness of a competing memory system, which is our conscious memory system."
In both the cases of the boy in Croatia and the New York twins, the fathers had forgotten to drop the kids off after already dropping someone else.
The Croatian father, a soldier, had dropped off his wife at her job and was supposed to drop his son to school before heading to work himself. But after dropping off his wife, he drove straight to a street near his barracks and left the car locked with the sleeping child inside. On returning to the car, he fainted in shock after finding his son collapsed inside.
Rodriguez, the father from the Bronx and an Iraq war vet, had dropped his 4-year-old off at daycare that fateful morning in July 2019. He was then supposed to take the twins to their daycare before going to the hospital where he worked as a licensed clinical social worker. After an eight-hour shift, he returned to the vehicle and discovered the twins lifeless in their rear-facing car seats. He immediately called 911, but the infants were pronounced dead at the scene.
Dropping one person off at one place and forgetting to drop the other at the next location is common in instances where children are forgotten in cars. Diamond says there is a science behind this.
The aforementioned 'autopilot system' is engaged when dropping the first person off. Usually, this is someone the driver has been dropping off for years – a spouse they've been with for a long time, or an older child they've been taking to daycare or school for many years. A new drop-off breaks that habit.
"After you’ve taken the first child to day care, the old habit gets engaged, and you go straight to work." Diamond said. "And you lose awareness that you have a second child, twins, to take to a second location."
Diamond explains that completing the first drop-off can trick your brain into believing it's time to move onto the next part of your routine, be it going to work or running errands. "Every time you get to work, you’ve never had your child in a car... Therefore your brain says, 'You’re now alone. There’s no child in the car.'
"So the parent now has this artificially-created memory that says, 'Now you move on with your day.'"
This is why so many caregivers who have left their children in the car go about the rest of their day completely unfazed, without realising what they've done until it's too late.
The brain slips into autopilot mode when people are stressed or haven't been sleeping well. "Those two components make it much more likely that someone will do something out of habit and their conscious memory system then is impaired," Diamond continued.
Hence, people who forget their children in cars are often parents of young infants or workers who have intense, strenuous careers. As factors that cause stress are impossible to control, Diamond says the best way to combat forgetting your child in a car is to acknowledge that you could.
"People are in denial, they will not make an effort to remind themselves that the child is in the car because that's admitting that they could forget their child," he says. But having an awareness of how your subconscious can take over means you can prepare yourself in case it does.
Many people write a shopping list, leave notes to themselves on the fridge, or mark appointment dates in their calendar so that they don't forget important things that need doing. Reminding yourself to drop your kids off at where they're supposed to be is no different. Though some parents feel that their kids are chatty or noisy enough to keep their presence known or impossible to forget, that's not the case for sleeping infants – and even with older kids, there's no guarantee they won't doze off into silence.
There are a number of ways you can jog your conscious memory. One option is to have your child's creche or school contact you if they aren't dropped off on time.
Another is to make use of technology; some cars have built-in reminders of a person in the backseat. Many cars allow you to connect phones or smart watches, so you could set reminder alarms that would go off through your car speakers.
You could also put an object on the passenger's seat to remind you of your child's presence, like a blanket or soft toy. Take it out on journeys where your child isn't with you so that your conscious memory associates the presence of that object with the presence of your child.
Diamond says that remembering that this type of tragedy really can happen to anyone is of the utmost importance. "...This has happened to hundreds of really good, wonderful and attentive parents, and they're suffering because of this," he said.
"It’s easy to judge, much tougher but important to understand how it happens."