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Why the toddler who died in a hot car in Georgia haunts us

There’s a smug part of me that thinks I’m above rubbernecking at the tabloids, but when it comes to stories of parents allegedly killing their kids, I can’t look away. I have no personal stake in a story out of Georgia where a dad, Justin Ross Harris, stands accused of leaving his toddler in a hot car on purpose, but I’m riveted anyway. 

It reminds me of the Casey Anthony case, which took place not far from where I live. During her trial, my youngest son was the same age that Caylee Anthony was when she died. I’ll be honest — I wanted Anthony to go to jail forever and ever. Her acquittal felt personal. When it seems like a parent killed a child on purpose, the emotional response is pretty black and white. Especially when you’re a mom.

Accidents happen, right?

But what if it really is an accident, like so many of these hot car deaths? Over 30 kids die every year in hot cars, and most of the time it’s a parent at fault. In Florida we deal with hot temperatures almost year-round and we hear of children being left in steaming hot cars all the time. In early June, a local dad went inside to find a cell phone charger and fell asleep on the couch. As he dozed, his 2-year-old daughter slowly died in the back seat of his car. The dad has been charged with aggravated manslaughter. When I read about this, I felt tremendous pity for the father. By all accounts, he worked long hours and doted on his little girl. A simple, horrible mistake cost him everything.

Learn how to prevent kids dying in hot cars >>

Unless a parent was clearly negligent, such as being too drunk to remember a child in the back seat, I don’t think these accidents should be criminalized. I think a lifetime of crippling guilt and torment is more than enough punishment. Only about half of parents in these cases are prosecuted — none of them escape the weight of being responsible for an innocent child’s death.

Is this case different?

But what about Justin Ross Harris, the Georgia dad who says he forgot to drop his son off at day care and headed in to work with his toddler still in the back seat? The boy died. Harris has been charged with murder and cruelty to a child. What’s the difference between this hot car death and the sickening accidents that came before? Police are indicating that Harris may have intentionally left his son to die in the car.

This mom left her toddler in a hot car >>

Harris and his wife are reported to have researched how children die in hot cars before Cooper died on June 18. I don’t think enough evidence is there for anyone to understand what happened that day, but in this case, I’m relieved that the authorities have gotten involved. And I’m dismayed at my own reaction. Once again, I can’t look away. If they really conspired to kill their son, why did they do it? What could possibly lead parents to follow through on such an act? And if, in fact, Harris is innocent of the charges being thrown at him — how can he really prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is innocent? And how can authorities prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he is guilty?

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