Hot-car deaths, after decline last year, on the rise again

» AJC Breakdown: Podcast on the Harris case

Twin 15-month-old girls in Carrollton Thursday became the 25th and 26th children nationwide to die this year after being trapped in a hot car. That’s already two more than all the hot-car deaths in 2015, according to organizations that track such cases.

The previous hot-car deaths have been just as heart-wrenching as what happened to Ariel Roxanne North and Alaynah Maryanne North. Just last month, for example, 2-year-old Boi Lei Sang died in a church parking lot in Dallas while his parents attended worship services. When he couldn’t find his son in Bible class, the child’s father bolted out of the church and found the toddler unresponsive and overheated in the family SUV.

Boi Lei was one of four children to die in a single four-day span last month, with the other deaths occurring in Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

On average, 37 children a year die from heat-related deaths inside cars. And last year’s total of 24 was the lowest in any single year since 1997.

Jan Null of the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science at San Jose University, attributes last year’s decline to the nationwide publicity of the Ross Harris hot-car murder case. Harris, a former Home Depot web developer, is accused of deliberately leaving his 22-month-old son, Cooper, to die in the family’s sweltering SUV in 2014. Harris’ trial begins Sept. 12.

“There was so much attention across the nation on the Harris case I believe it raised public awareness,” said Null, who closely tracks hot-car deaths.

He said, however, that the trend of three dozen deaths annually has returned this year.

“For the first week of August, with 26 so far, we’re right at about average,” Null said. “Sadly, we’ll probably see another half-dozen deaths this year, if not more.”

The Carrollton twins’ father, Asa North, is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct, and police say alcohol played a role in the tragedy.

Nationwide, some hot-car cases are prosecuted as crimes and some are not.

“It’s just all over the map,” said Janette Fennell, who heads, a child safety nonprofit. Fennell’s group tracked 406 hot-car deaths nationwide through 2015 and found that authorities did not bring charges 40 percent of the time.

Some recent cases illustrate the trend.

Rome, N.Y., police officer Mark Fanfarillo was not charged with any offense after he forgot to drop off his 4-month-old son, Michael, at daycare in June and left him to die in the family car out in the driveway.

In a statement, the local district attorney’s office noted Fanfarillo was rarely tasked to drop Michael off at daycare. “A lapse or loss in memory is insufficient proof to satisfy the legal requirement of failing to perceive a risk — something more is required,” it said.

In March, two children died in hot cars in different parts of Mississippi.

In Grenada County, Joshua Lewis Blunt was charged with second-degree murder for leaving his 8-month-old daughter in the car. Eight days earlier, Amy Bryant left her 2-year-old daughter Caroline in her car in Madison County. She’s facing a possible manslaughter charge when her case is presented to the grand jury later this month, District Attorney Michael Guest said Friday.

Over the next few months, millions of Americans will strap their young children into their car seats and hit the road. And if the national trend holds true, that means 10 more children will die horrific deaths.

“You just want to start screaming,” Fennell said in frustration.

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