A woman who left four children in a hot car in the Walmart parking lot will go before a Troup County judge to learn her punishment.
A woman, 23, was cited with parental responsibility (protection) over the weekend after she left her nieces and nephews – ages 4, 5, 6 and 10 – in a hot car. According to the LaGrange Police Department, the aunt went into Walmart to buy three bathing suits.
This latest incident comes on the heels of heightened public awareness after a case in Cobb County just over a month ago where Ross Harris, 33, is accused of purposefully leaving his 22-month-old-son, Cooper, inside a hot car in the parking lot of his work place. According to the Cobb County Medical Examiners Office, the toddler died from hyperthermia, which is consistent with a death from hot temperatures. Police say temperatures soared into the lower 90s the day Cooper died.
While the two cases had two very different outcomes, the message is still the same:
“Take the time, take your time and take your kids out of the car,” said Sgt. Marshall McCoy with LPD’s Criminal Investigation Unit. “Plan in advance, know your activities ahead of time and take your kids inside.”
The advice may seem obvious, but McCoy said it happens often with children and pets. For example, McCoy said people step away from a car for what they believe is “just a minute” to pay for gas, and are gone longer than they think.
And while a few minutes doesn’t seem long, Dr. Robert Martin said during the hot summer months, it doesn’t take long for a situation to turn dangerous.
“Cars are like an oven,” he explained. “If it’s 90 degrees outside, in under 20 minutes the inside of a car can be 120 degrees. A person, especially a child’s, core temperature can go up, which can result in heat stroke.
“In it long enough, with a body core temperature at 105 or 106 degrees … higher than normal, that’s when things start shutting down. Brain damage can occur.”
In the LaGrange case, police say the temperature Saturday afternoon was 95 degrees with a heat index of 108. Fortunately, none of the children were harmed.
According to the police report, the windows were rolled down in the car. Officers on the scene were able to find the aunt quickly and said she admitted she knew it was hot outside and it was wrong to leave the kids in the car. That’s when police issued her a citation, charging her with parental responsibility, which McCoy said in some of these situations is proper procedure.
“Normally the charge is a city ordinance when parents leave children in a car,” he explained. “ People make bad decisions every day. Maybe in her mind she was just going to run in and run out of the store. There was no intent to hurt the children.”
McCoy said the severity of the charges is different for every case and is left up to the discretion of the responding officer. For instance, in 2011, McCoy said a man left a 1 year old in a hot car. He was arrested and taken to jail.
According to McCoy, officers on scene will talk to the children, take in the entirety of the situation, look up reports on scene to see if there’s been a previous incident involving the adult and child, and check with the Department of Family and Child Services (DFACS).
“We take in the ages of the children,” said McCoy. “ What is the ‘legal’ age to leave a child alone? There isn’t one … so it may depend on the child’s maturity level. We look at the child’s physical condition … are they sweaty or clammy? Is there any physical evidence this is an aggravated event?
“We also ask the oldest child: ‘Do you have a phone in the car? Can you communicate? Where is mom and dad?’ And we determine if they can comprehend what to do in an emergency.”
While it may seem like a slap on the wrist, McCoy said the charge of parental responsibility still holds consequences. The cited woman will have to appear in court to find out her punishment, which McCoy said could be a fine of up to $1,000 and probation. The case is also turned over to DFACS who may follow up with the family and children.
McCoy said fortunately all of the cases involving children left in hot cars have been caught early, thanks in part to a vigilant community.
“We’ve gotten a lot of calls about it, involving children and animals,” he said. “ People are noticing. People are watching. It takes law enforcement and the community together to tackle this (issue).”