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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Car can become 'an oven' for children left inside

 •  Chart: Rising temperatures inside enclosed vehicle

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer

A day after a 10-month-old girl died after being left in a hot, locked car in the parking lot of the Windward YMCA, police said they were unsure if the mother would be charged with any crime.

Police homicide Lt. Bill Kato said yesterday that the case still was classified as an unattended death, pending police review of the autopsy report.

"There's a possibility that there won't be an arrest," Kato said. "We have to take a close look. This could just be an accident, something like the parent who's sleeping and rolls on top of the baby."

Kato said the baby was in the automobile as her mother drove from place to place starting at about 7:15 a.m. The child was found in the car at about 1 p.m. The temperature in Kailua reached 88 degrees on Monday.

An autopsy was performed yesterday, and police have said they will wait until the results are released before questioning the 31-year-old mother, a Kane'ohe resident.

A spokesperson at the medical examiner's office said the case is "pending further investigation and studies," but expects to have more information today.

Windward YMCA supervisor Roz Hamby said the mother, Susanna Hunt, had been teaching a physical therapy class before finding her daughter in her vehicle.

Hunt and her family declined to comment about the incident yesterday.

Kato said the mother, who lives with the baby's father, was too distraught to be interviewed on the scene. Patrol officers took a brief statement from her, Kato said.

Hunt is not an employee at the YMCA, said Hamby, group vice president of the Honolulu YMCA.

She works for a Windward physical therapy company, Fukuji & Lum Physical Therapy Association, which has an agreement with the YMCA for the use of its swimming pool. The agreement has been in place for about three years, and the classes take place from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Hamby said.

Hamby couldn't say how long Hunt has been leading the classes but said this was the first time Hunt had brought the child. She said that she assumed Hunt had a regular baby-sitter.

"She was a wonderful instructor, great personality, great with people, someone we enjoyed having around the YMCA," she said.

Hamby said the YMCA has not been able to reach the family since the incident.

"We just want to give them our sympathy and let them know our hearts go out to them," she said.

Keeping children safe

A few guidelines for parents and caregivers to keep children safe:

• Don't overlook sleeping infants, especially if you're in a rush. Place your purse or cell phone in the back seat or a small toy in the front as a reminder. Always check the car seat before you leave your vehicle.

• Always lock car doors and the trunk after you and the children have exited to prevent children from playing inside parked cars and locking themselves in.

• When parents are sharing child pick-up and drop-off duties, communicating is important. Know where the child is.

• Watch young children closely around the car when loading or unloading. There have been incidents in which cars roll over children.

• Be wary of child-resistant locks that can trap children inside if a child is tampering with it. Teach older children how to unlock the door lock.

• Car keys should be kept out of children's reach so they can't enter the car without a parent's knowledge.

• Keep rear folding seats closed to prevent children from crawling into trunks from inside the car.

• When buckling a child into a car seat, check to make sure the buckles or fabric haven't become overheated in the sun. Cover the car seat with a light cloth to keep it shaded.

• Use window shades to shade the inside of the car from excessive heat; keep heat off the car seat and the child.

State health officials warned yesterday that children should never be left unattended in cars.

"Children can suffer heat stroke within minutes, followed by permanent disability or death," said Therese Argoud, childhood injury prevention coordinator in the Department of Health's Injury Prevention Program.

"Heat stroke can occur when the body temperature reaches 105 degrees Fahrenheit and death at 107 degrees Fahrenheit," said Argoud.

The temperature inside a closed car on a hot day can rise as much as 20 degrees in the first 10 minutes — and continue to rise rapidly.

Even with a window cracked open by 1 1/2 inches, the temperature inside a car can rise from the low 90s to above 125 degrees within half an hour, according to a study done by San Francisco State University's Department of Geosciences.

Children are especially vulnerable to heat because their body temperatures rise three to five times faster than those of adults, Argoud said.

"Extreme heat affects infants and small children disproportionately," she said.

In addition, a baby has less ability to sweat and cool itself than an older child or adult, said Dr. Linda Rosen, deputy health director and a former emergency room physician.

"And their breathing can be affected by being overheated. It can slow down their breathing," Rosen said.

Health officials said there is a general lack of awareness of how easily a small child can get into trouble. A national opinion study done by the National Safe Kids Campaign discovered that one in 10 parents felt it would be fine to leave a child unattended in a car. "Kids should not be left unattended ever," said Argoud. "Between 1996 and 2000, 160 children died nationwide from heat stroke after being trapped in a car. Most of them were 3 or younger."

According to Janette Fennell, founder and president of the non-profit safety group Kids and Cars, 40 small children have died of hyperthermia in overheated cars this year. In the past five years, a total of 200 infants and small children have died nationally.

"In a very short period of time, a vehicle becomes an oven," said Fennell. "We've known of children who have succumbed to the heat in a short time on a 70-degree day when inside the vehicle it was probably 90."

Fennell said that what her organization has found in hyperthermia deaths is that children literally have been forgotten. "It could be a situation where someone really thinks that they had dropped off the baby but they hadn't," she said. "A common thread is there's been a change in routine. Maybe dad usually drops off the baby, and today it's mom, or vice versa. Or usually another child is dropped off first, and there's been a change."

"We have parents who are multi-tasking, stressed out, and they are really losing sight of the very basic things that we need to protect children," said Nancy Partika, executive director of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies.

"I've seen parents who have said, 'I'm only going to be a minute,' and lock their child in the car so no one steals them. You can't do that with a small child," Partika said. "Parents need to realize you can't leave living things inside a car — plants, pets or children. Period."

Advertiser staff writers Vicki Viotti and Beverly Creamer contributed to this report. Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com. or 234-5266.

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