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Deaths of children in hot cars rising

Claire Kelly, 8, sat with her father, Kevin, as he waited to donate blood at the annual Frances Kelly Blood Drive. Claire Kelly, 8, sat with her father, Kevin, as he waited to donate blood at the annual Frances Kelly Blood Drive. (LINDA SPILLERS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

MANASSAS, Va. -- Kevin Kelly is a law-abiding citizen who, much distracted, left his beloved 21-month-old daughter in a sweltering van for seven hours.

Frances Kelly had probably been dead for more than four hours by the time a neighbor noticed her strapped in her car seat; when rescue personnel removed the girl from the vehicle, her skin was red and blistered, her fine, carrot-colored hair matted with sweat. Two hours later, her body temperature was still nearly 106 degrees.

What is the appropriate punishment for a doting parent responsible for his child's death? A judge eventually spared Kelly a lengthy term in prison. Still, it is a question that is asked dozens of times each year.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of children who died of heat exhaustion inside vehicles has risen dramatically, totaling around 340 in the past 10 years. Ironically, one reason is a change parent-drivers made to protect children after juvenile air-bag deaths peaked in 1995: They put them in the back seat, where they are more easily forgotten.

An Associated Press analysis of more than 310 such deaths in the past 10 years found that prosecutions and penalties vary widely, depending in many cases on where the death occurred and who left the child to die: parent or caregiver, mother or father:

Mothers are treated much more harshly than fathers. While mothers and fathers are charged and convicted at about the same rates, mothers are 26 percent more likely to do time. Their median sentence is two years longer than that received by fathers.

Day-care workers and other paid baby sitters are more likely than parents to be charged and convicted. But they are jailed less frequently than parents and for less than half the time.

Charges are filed in half of all cases, even when a child was left unintentionally.

In all, the AP analyzed 339 fatalities involving more than 350 responsible parties. July is by far the deadliest month, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total.

A relatively small number of cases, about 7 percent, involved drugs or alcohol. In a few instances, the responsible parties had a history of abusing or neglecting children. Still others were single parents unable to find or afford day care. Many cases involved what might be called community pillars.

"But no one thinks it's going to happen to them," says Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, a nonprofit group that tracks child deaths and injuries in and around automobiles. The AP's analysis was based largely on a database of fatal hyperthermia cases compiled by Fennell's organization.

The correlation between the rise in these deaths and the 1990s move to put children in the back seat is striking.

"Up to that time, the average number of children dying of hyperthermia in the United States was about 11 a year," says Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Francisco State University who has studied this trend. "Then we put them in the back, turned the car seats around. And from '98 to 2006, that number is 36 a year."

Few understand just how quickly a car can heat up, even on a moderate day. According to one study, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise more than 40 degrees in the span of an hour. Cracking open the windows does little to help, researchers say.

So what did Kevin Kelly deserve? The day Frances died, May 29, 2002, the Manassas engineer was watching 12 children alone while his wife and oldest daughter were abroad visiting a cancer-stricken relative.

When he returned home that day, he had asked two teenage children, both of baby-sitting age, to attend to their younger siblings while he went back to school for another daughter who was late getting out of an exam.

In the next seven hours, he was accosted by an air-conditioning repairman with news he was going to have to spend several thousand dollars on a new unit. He fixed lunch, did laundry, mended a gap in the fence the little ones were using to escape the yard, drove to the store for parts to fix his air conditioner, took a son to soccer practice, and fixed a leaking drain pipe in the basement.

A jury convicted Kelly of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment and recommended a year in prison. But the judge ordered Kelly to spend one day a year in jail for seven years and to hold an annual blood drive around the anniversary of his daughter's death.

"The judge was very, very merciful," Kelly said recently while waiting in line at All Saints Catholic Church to donate blood. ". . . This is an opportunity to honor my daughter and save lives."