Juan Rodriguez, a doting upstate New York dad, forgot his 1-year-old twins in the back seat when he went to work as a Bronx social worker last Friday. When he got back to his car at the end of the day, he realized his mistake and started screaming. They were dead. I’d like to scream now, too.
That’s because the state has not yet decided whether it will drop the charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a child it has brought against Rodriguez. Meantime, the judge set the bail at $100,000—as if Rodriguez is a risk to others, as if he hasn’t suffered enough, as if this will teach the rest of us some sort of lesson.
It will not.
On social media, many people understand this. “There but for the grace of God go I,” they write. But plenty of others are saying this man is guilty because no decent person would ever forget their kids in the car.
But we know from the fact that stories like this are not unheard of that humans are ... human. A baby in a car seat, facing backward, making no sound—it is all too easy to forget they are there and proceed on autopilot to work or wherever.
For this reason, many states have made it illegal to let a child wait in the car for more than a few minutes, or at all. The stated desire is to prevent tragedies like these.
But if the father had remembered that his kids were in the car, he WOULD have taken them out. So the fear of “breaking the law” does nothing to prevent a tragedy like this. And certainly, the threat of one’s beloved children dying is a tad more incentivizing than the threat of legal action.
This story is particularly hard to bear because the dad is a disabled war vet, a social worker and a conscientious father who lives for his kids. Now he will be held up as a reason that more states should pass even more draconian “no kids left in the car” laws. These laws would make sense if kids died the instant a parent dashed into the store for a gallon of milk, but they don’t. And in fact, more kids die in parking lots than in parked cars. So, always taking the kids out of the car does not make sense, safety-wise.
The vast majority of kids who do die in cars either climbed in when no one was looking and weren’t found until it was too late, or they were forgotten there. They are not in danger when mom goes in to pick up the shirts from the dry cleaner because she’s not going to suddenly decide, “You know, I’ve always wanted to become a dry cleaner. Let me spend the rest of the day working the presser.” So, criminalizing parents who consciously let their kids wait in the car a few minutes is not the answer.
The answer, to me, is to publicize and spread the act of always putting something else in the back seat at the same time you put the child there: A shoe (or maybe your phone). When you exit the car it’s impossible not to notice you’re missing something. Fetching the item brings you to the back seat and baby.
Public service announcements like, “Baby in —Shoe off!” could save more lives than laws against letting kids wait in the car during a short errand.
A technological answer—an alarm that goes off if someone is left in the car or if the back door opened at the beginning of the trip but not the end—is a good idea as a reminder, but not if it makes it illegal to let the kids wait in the car for a few minutes, the way it’s illegal to drive without putting on a seat belt.
Either way, the shoe and the alarm make a lot more sense than tormenting a dad who’s already living in hell.