Crime & Courts

With 1st death in years, Richland sheriff, coroner stress dangers of kids in hot cars

A baby seat was inside a vehicle with a temperature of around 110 degrees.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Coroner Gary Watts and a few other officers were around the vehicle talking about how a tragedy like this was avoidable and that parents needed to be vigilant.

“Unfortunately, what we see too often is that we have parents, guardians that leave their child in the car,” Lott said.

Fortunately this time around, the child seat held a doll and Watts, Lott and his deputies were talking to at a news conference instead of the scene of a child’s death.

In 2018, South Carolina led the nation in children dying from being left in hot cars with six deaths, according to the coroner’s office and sheriff’s department. But the scenario from Friday’s news conference became real again this week.

At the conference, Lott announced that a 4-year-old was trapped in a car and died this week. The incident happened Wednesday outside a home in Blythewood. Watts identified the victims as Zion Akinrefon of Maryland.

In that case, the parents didn’t leave the child in the car. Zion and his family were visiting relatives. He was watching television the last time his family saw him. His mother noticed he was absent, and after the family searched for him, she found her son unresponsive inside the car around 5 p.m. Watts said it’s believed that the child walked out of the home through a side door and got locked inside the vehicle, passing out from heat stroke.

No charges are being filed, the sheriff’s department said. It’s treating the incident as a horrific accident.

Lott and Watts emphasized it wasn’t only important to check a car for your children when you got out and not to leave them in the vehicle intentionally, but also to keep your doors locked so they can’t accidentally get inside the car. The upcoming summer months make this all the more crucial as temperatures inside vehicles can rise quickly.

With temperatures hovering in the mid-90s on Friday, the inside of the car used in the demonstration heated to over 100 degrees in about 10 minutes.

Children’s bodies heat up three to five times fast than adults, Watt said, and organs begin to shut down when core body temperature reaches 104 degrees.

“In a vehicle, that can happen in 15 to 30 minutes,” Watts said.

While children accidentally becoming trapped in vehicles is the cause of about 26% of hyperthermia deaths, the majority, 54%, are caused by caregivers forgetting about the child, according to research by San Jose State University.

Zion’s death was the first child in Richland County to die from a hot car in three or four years, Watts said. But his office often hears the public safety calls reporting children left in vehicles.

“Parents can be preoccupied, especially if they’re working or they got a lot going on,” causing a child to be accidentally left in a car, Watts said. “If something happens as minor as a change in their regular schedule . . . those changes can throw them off. It’s a matter of being hyper-vigilante . . . Just always make it a habit of checking the backseat.”

Trying to leave a car running with the air conditioner, letting windows down or parking in the shade won’t work, Lott said. A car engine can unexpectedly shut off and interiors can still hold deadly temperatures even in the shade or with open windows.

Only going into a place for a minute shouldn’t be a reason to leave a kid in a vehicle, Lott said.

In rarer, but not unheard of circumstances, cars left running are stolen sometimes with children inside. On Saturday, in Columbia, a person stole a vehicle that was left running in the parking lot of a Five Points restaurant. A 9-month-old was inside the car when it was stolen. The infant was later found in its car seat blocks away. Columbia Police Department said it was in talks with prosecutors about possible charges against the father who left the child in the car.

Police can charge parents with child abuse for leaving kids in cars.

Some state lawmakers have sought to redefine rules that allow police to charge parents for leaving children alone at home, at parks or in vehicles if the parents determine their children are mature enough to handle the situation. So-called “free range parenting” laws would likely still allow for a parent who left a child in a car when the temperature could make it deadly to be criminally charged. A woman in Arizona was charged with child abuse after leaving her children in the car during a job interview, but prosecutors dropped the charged.

If parents knows they have obligations where their kids can’t be present, they have to plan, Lott said. And if it comes down to leaving your kid in the car or breaking a social norm about children being present, that social norm will just have to be broken, Lott said.

If anyone sees a child left alone in a car, Lott said action should be left up to emergency responders and to call 911.

“Let’s not rely on (kids) to protective themselves,” Lott said “That’s up to us.”

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.