Day care and dead toddlers

Michelle Malkin

7/11/2003 12:00:00 AM - Michelle Malkin

Every summer, the stories come. And the tiny bodies pile up. "Toddler trapped in hot van dies." "Kids die from heat in SUV." "Baby boy dies in hot van."

Some of the tragedies involve outright parental neglect -- a father who recklessly leaves an infant in the driveway so he can go inside the house alone and take a nap; a mother who selfishly locks her child in the car so she can go shopping at the mall. In a few other cases, it's an absent-minded parent or grandparent who has, in the words of one Philadelphia area man's lawyer, a "senior moment" and "forgets" the child is in the backseat.

But in what seems an increasingly common trend, too many of these horrible deaths share a common denominator: day care.

In Lancaster, Calif., this week, 5-year-old Dakota Prince and 3-year-old Nehemiah Prince died inside an SUV parked in 100-degree heat outside A Child's Place day-care center. The children had been forgotten by their foster mother, who ran the busy day-care operation and left them in the parking lot, where "she thought someone else was going to get the children out of the car," police said.

Also this week, in Nashville, Tenn., 22-month-old David Gordon died after being left all day in his mother's van parked outside the Small Wonders day-care center. Gordon's mother ran the center. With his face burned and body showing "obvious signs of heat injuries," David went unnoticed until another parent saw him in the van when she came to pick up her own child.

In Memphis, Tenn., 2-year-old Amber Cox-Cody died last week of hyperthermia and dehydration after she was left for nearly eight hours in a day-care van outside the Children's Rainbow Learning Center. Amber was buried last week with her Minnie Mouse doll. She became the eighth child to die in a Memphis day-care van since 1997.

Among them: Tennessean Brandon Mann, 2, who perished in 1999 after being locked in a van outside the Pee Wee Wisdom Learning Center, and 22-month-old Darnecia Slater, who died the same summer after being left in a van at the Children's Palace Learning Center.

In Orlando, Fla., last month, 2-year-old Dominique Royals was left in a hot van (in which the temperature reached an estimated 140 degrees) by day-care workers for several hours before dying. Detectives said Rutherford Family Day Care Home operators misled them by claiming the boy had crawled into the van by himself while playing hide-and-seek with other children.

Orlando witnessed a similar disaster two summers earlier, when 2-year-old Zaniyah Hinson was left to die in a van used by the Abundant Life Academy of Learning.

Also last month, in Austin, Texas, 2-year-old Chloe Abbott died after she was left in an SUV outside a La Petite day care center. Two-year-old Alan Brown, Jr., died in May after he was left in a van outside the Little Dudes and Daisies Daycare and Learning Center in a Dallas suburb. "He loved Hot Wheels," his aunt said at his funeral.

Parent activists are demanding more laws, regulation and government oversight to prevent similar deaths. "Kids in Cars," a non-profit group, has launched a legislative and educational campaign with bumper stickers that warn: "A car is not a babysitter."

Some of these measures may help. But there is a need to look deeper. I believe Dakota, Nehemiah, David, Amber, Brandon, Darnecia, Dominique, Zaniyah, Chloe and Alan are not merely victims of isolated day-care accidents. They are also symptoms of a culture where parents treat children as disposable as their diapers. Some of these kids probably spent more of their brief lives in their deadly car seats than they did in their own parents' laps.

It is absolutely unfathomable to me that anyone could leave a child forgotten in a car, like an old umbrella or a fast-food wrapper. But then again, we live in an age where teens dump their newborns in toilets and junkies sell their offspring for drugs and "liberated" women pick up and drop off their kids at day care as nonchalantly as their dry cleaning.

Why must it take the unforgettable suffering of innocents, stifling to death in sun-baked cars, to remind mothers and fathers of the sanctity of life?