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Baby Clare: A Hot Car Story (Nightmare)

August 8, 2014

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[NOTE: This post was originally published on Vancouver Family Magazine’s website. You can find the original article here.]

Let me tell you the story of what happened to 7-month-old baby, Clare.

June 2001. Tuesday. Perry, Iowa.

Dennis Engholm, 38, and Kari Engholm, 34, prepare to leave their upper-class home for work. Dennis works for Iowa State University. His wife Kari is CEO of Dallas County Hospital. Dennis leaves first. Today he has to be to work early. He has important responsibilities.

Normally, Dennis would take baby Clare to the baby-sitter before work. Today, he leaves Clare with Kari. She normally takes only her son, 3-year-old Eric, to a day care center near the hospital. Today, Kari will take both kids.

Kari has a busy day too. A 7 a.m. board meeting to discuss selling a medical practice to a doctor. Kari also has other meetings throughout the day. Big plans for a retirement center. Important meetings. Busy schedule. Hectic day.

Sometime before 7 a.m., Kari arrives at the day care center. She takes Eric out of the car and notices the lilac aroma in the air. Baby Clare is sleeping. Kari doesn’t notice her. Kari closes the car door. She walks Eric to day care. She drives to the hospital and prepares for her first meeting.

10 a.m. The baby-sitter calls the Engolm’s residence to see why baby Clare was not dropped off. There is no answer. No one is home. Dennis and Kari are both at work. She leaves a message.

Lunch time. The summer sun beats down outside the air conditioned hospital.

Kari’s afternoon is as busy as was her morning. Finally, she attends her last meeting. She answers her last phone message.

5:40 p.m. Temperatures still hover around 90 degrees. Kari leaves her office. Walks to her car. The steering wheel is hot—too hot. Carefully, Kari drives the short distance to the day care center.  She picks up Eric. She smiles at him when he shows the artwork he completed. His face beaming.

Kari walks Eric to the car. She opens the car door. Baby Clare is sleeping. Only she isn’t. Kari notices her.

She screams. Unnerving screams. Horrified screams. She unbuckles Clare from her child seat. Clare’s body is so limp. It’s so hot. Kari runs back to the day care center. Still screaming. Tears pouring down her cheeks. Employees call 911. They call Dennis. Paramedics arrive. They can do nothing for Clare. It’s too late. Clare is gone. She has been for hours.

The story of Kari Engholm was one of the first of many highly-publicized, highly controversial, stories about the nightmares experienced when young infants and children are unknowingly forgotten by their parents inside a car. Following her baby’s death, Kari Engholm was criminally charged with neglect of a dependent person and involuntary manslaughter. Kari faced up to 12 years in prison.

Though she was ultimately found innocent on all accounts, it is hard to imagine a consequence imposed by the criminal justice system being greater than the loss of her child under such circumstances.

Today, people are more aware than ever of the dangers posed to children by too-hot cars. For the past 20 years, non-profit child safety organization, Kids and Cars, has dedicated itself to preventing injuries and death to children in or around motor vehicles. They track child fatalities from all classes of nontraffic injuries, including the types that killed baby Clare. Last year alone, at least 44 infants and children died inside their car as a result of heat stroke. Kids and Cars calculate that each year 38 deaths—one every 9 days, occur under such circumstances. Although the summer heat has only just begun, there have already been 11 such deaths in the United States alone.

This is way too many.

One is too many.

Even here in the Northwest, temperatures outside can create unsurvivable temperatures inside a car.  When outside temperatures reach 90-degrees, the temperature inside a parked car can soar in just a few short minutes. The following chart from Weather.com shows the temperature inside a car on a 90-degree sunny day:

Time
(Minutes)
Outside the Car Temperature (F) Inside the Car Temperature (F)
0 90 90
10 90 109
20 90 119
30 90 124
60 90 133
90 90 138

Even outside temperatures in the 60s can cause a car temperature to rise higher than 110 degrees F.

Kids and Cars has published a checklist that every parent can follow to plan to keep our children protected from these types of fatalities:

  1. Back Seat: Put something in the back seat of your vehicle that requires you to open the back door every time you park—cell phone, employee badge, handbag, etc.
  1. Every Child: Every child should be correctly restrained in the back seat.
  1. Stuffed Animal: Keep a stuffed animal in your child’s car seat. Place it on the front seat as a reminder when your baby is in the back seat.
  1. Ask Your Babysitter: Ask your babysitter or child care provider to call you if your child hasn’t arrived on time.
  1. Focus on Driving: Avoid cell phone calls and texting while driving.
  1. Every Time You Park: Make it a routine to open the back door of your car every time you park to check that no one has been left behind.

Like everything that threatens the health and safety of our children, we parents have to plan to keep our children safe. Janice Summerson, a close friend of Kari Engholm and witness to the aftermath of Clare’s unfortunate death, noted that she had “never seen the depth of sadness [Kari] showed. It was truly a mistake.” Though I’m sure Ms. Summerson was correct, this was a mistake of unparalleled magnitude, we cannot afford to make the same mistake again. The consequences are too high.

Please plan to keep your children safe this summer.

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I’m coming Kimberly…

March 31, 2014

ImageI’m on an airplane to Salt Lake City. I can’t post this until I land, but, wanted to write when my feelings and thoughts were still raw and fresh.

I left my home in Vancouver, Washington 30 minutes ago. It’s been a long morning. I woke up to a text message from Jory, my brother-in-law. That was unusual and honestly alarming. In the few minutes it took to wake up, my initial fears were confirmed. In brief and clearly anxious words he wrote:

<em>Kimberly and I were in a really bad car accident this morning. They are taking Kimberly to the SICU, she had a broken leg and a crushed spleen, a liver laceration and a bruised kidney. Can you please try and get a hold of your parents?</em>

You see, my parents are in South Africa picking up my other sister who just finished two-and-a-half years as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. After several attempts, I finally reached them. They had so many questions; the same questions I had. But I had no answers. The only information I had was in the text message above. In my rush to be useful, to do something despite the miles between us, I didn’t even think to find out more before alerting my family. I needed to find out more.

After several phone calls to family members and Salt Lake hospitals, I finally learned that after dropping off their two children (thank goodness), my sister and brother-in-law were driving to work together when suddenly, and without warning, they were T-boned by a large tractor trailer carrying a heavy load of gravel. The truck driver ran a red light and struck their car on the passenger side–my sister’s side. The impact knocked my sister unconscious, and pinned her inside the mangled vehicle. It took 30 minutes for emergency responders to finally get her out of the vehicle. She was taken to the hospital as a “Trauma” patient. She doesn’t remember the collision. My brother-in-law was also taken to the hospital with less-threatening injuries.

I eventually relayed the information to my family in South Africa and have kept them as updated as thousands of miles permits. I know not being here is hard for them. All I can do is communicate and provide information.

Last update I received before boarding the plane was that Kimberly’s injuries were “not life threatening” but that she was still in SICU, for observation and pending a decision on whether to remove her crushed spleen, or to simply “tie it off.” I suppose I’ll know one way or another before too long.

I deal with car crashes every day. I talk daily to victims of car crashes, who suffer physical injuries, and emotional damage in car crashes just like the one that put my sister in the intensive care unit of a hospital. No amount of familiarity or experience can prepare someone for getting “that call.” It’s different when the victim is a close loved one. These things never happen at “convenient” times. To the contrary, they always seem to happen at the worst times–when people are the most vulnerable.

Please, be careful. Please pay attention. Please don’t ignore or take lightly the safety rules that are designed to keep us all safe. Please be vigilant and aware of your surroundings and of other vehicles on the roadway. It only takes a moment of carelessness to forever change the lives of so many people.

Love you sister friend. I’ll see you soon.

Have You Heard About the New 2014 Child Safety Seat Installation Recommendations?

January 8, 2014

IMG_2137As a father of four children, my wife and I literally use the spectrum of child safety seats in each of our cars. My oldest son, Caden, has been out of a booster for some time. My youngest three children are still in varying levels of child safety seats. Hannah is in a booster, Jaxon is in a front-facing car seat, and Allison is in a rear-facing car seat. Despite our over eight years of experience using/installing child safety seats, new government recommendations made us reconsider our installation habits.

Like many of you, we find the convenience and ease-of-use of the LATCH system to be so much easier than strapping the car seat every time we get in the car. If you’re unfamiliar with the LATCH system, a brief explanation may be necessary so we’re on the same page. On most modern cars, the rear seats are equipped with metal braces that can be found by running your hand between the seat back and the bottom of the seat. Most new child seats are equipped with an attachment that clips to the metal braces making it much quicker and easier to secure your child’s safety seat than using the standard safety belt installed in your car.  Importantly, as your children grow, it may no longer be safe to use the LATCH system in your car.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the government agency that oversees motor vehicle transportation, now recommends that the LATCH system only be used until the combined weight of the child and the car seat exceed 65 pounds.  Once this occurs, the LATCH system may not be strong enough to secure the child seat if you are in a collision. In other words, if the LATCH system fails in a collision, your child, though secured in their child seat, may become a projectile inside your car. Needless to say, that is not a very safe place for your child to be!

Other things to consider are the manufacturer recommendations of the LATCH system in your car and the manufacturer recommendations of your child safety seat.  These devices may only be approved for a combined weight less than 65 pounds. In such cases, you should follow the manufacturer’s recommendations rather than wait until the combined weight reaches 65 pounds.

While it seems government recommendations are always changing relative to the installation of child safety seats, it is important to remember that millions of dollars of research go into these recommendations every year. They change because it is scientifically safer for our children when new recommendations are followed.

Check the combined weight of your child and their child safety seats. A good rule of thumb, would be to check the combined weight regularly as your child approaches 50 pounds. If your children grow anywhere near as fast as mine, it won’t be long before the combined weight exceeds 65 pounds.


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